Their first meeting didn't go well. The teenager was quiet - distant, really - as Bob White struggled to make small talk in the offices of Philadelphia Futures that day in 2007.

"Afterward he's probably thinking, 'What's this big white guy doing in my world?' " White says.

The 6-foot-3 litigator with a thatch of snow-white hair wasn't far off.

"I wasn't too thrilled to have him," recalls Taurean Nelson, then a sophomore at Parkway Center City High School. "I was expecting someone younger."

But White, who was looking for a promising young student to mentor, had experience bringing old school to new school.

He'd just spent four years coaching a North Philadelphia high school student named Giovanni Gutierrez, taking him to historic sites, art galleries, and museums, buying him subscriptions to Time and National Geographic, taking him canoeing on the Delaware as the SATs approached, and testing him with flash cards.

What sold Nelson on the 67-year-old volunteer from Huntingdon Valley were the unexpected similarities in their lives.

"I'm coming from a single-parent home," Nelson says. "He came from a single-parent home. He came from meager means; I'm coming from the same thing. I'm thinking, 'Wow, he was able to start from there and be this lawyer who is so successful at what he does. I can definitely learn from him.' "

White grew up in Clairton, a classic mill town outside Pittsburgh featured in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter. "The guys went to the mill; the girls worked in the office. U.S. Steel was king and jobs were available." He wanted out.

His ticket was his head for numbers. Sputnik had just been launched, and his teachers tagged him as a scientist who would help beat the Russians to the moon.

White worked his way through Drexel, graduated with a degree in industrial engineering, then studied law at Villanova on a scholarship. He's specialized in maritime and personal-injury law for 41 years.

His own kids - two girls and a boy - were grown by 2002 when he heard a radio interview with a lawyer whom Philadelphia Futures had paired with a bright but raw inner-city student.

White had donated money to his alma maters and to Arcadia, where his wife, Carol, had gone, but wondered what impact he was having. On New Year's Eve 2003, he dropped by Philadelphia Futures with a check for $7,500 - enough to sponsor tutoring, counseling, and college expenses for one student.

Since then he has sponsored seven others, and given something more valuable - the gift of time - to Gutierrez and Nelson, commitments that have lasted past high school. Gutierrez graduated this spring from Gettysburg College with a degree in English. White is helping him hone his job search.

Nelson was living in East Germantown when he met White. The teen moved twice after that, once his parents split up. He had a lot going on at home, but White sensed Nelson's intelligence, memory, and hunger.

Once a month they went on adventures, White picking movies like Sicko, The Reader, and Invictus, or feeding the youth's imagination with books such as Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

"I never saw my role as parental," White says. "Every kid needs someone in his life to support and encourage him unconditionally."

Nelson just finished his first year at Gettysburg on scholarship. When he had no way to get home from school, White fetched him. The 19-year-old is spending the summer in Bath, England, studying film, history, and architecture.

He calls White "the mentor/best friend/biggest cheerleader in my life," adding, "He encourages me to push so hard."

Philadelphia Futures is honoring Bob White at a graduation ceremony Monday night with its annual "Hat's Off to You" award for all his service. We tip ours as well.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.