Al Rosa & John Clapp

Al Rosa & John Clapp (Handout / February 19, 2014)

Alfred Rosa remembers the day 30 years ago when John Clapp pulled up to his house in a Datsun 200SX, red with white stripes. Neither one knew what to expect.

That meeting in West Hartford, or rather the bond they formed, would change both of their lives.

Rosa was 13, living with his divorced mother and older brother but not in regular contact with his father. Clapp was a UConn finance professor approaching middle age, stepping into the part of adult male role model for Rosa through Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.

They clicked.

"Within a week or two John invited me to go hiking, which was a completely alien activity to me," Rosa recalls.

Outdoor activities "really formed the bedrock of our relationship," Rosa said. "Not a Saturday or a Sunday would go by when we didn't have an activity, and more often than not we were out hiking and walking."

Clapp, 70, still a UConn professor with an expertise in real estate, became a mentor, adviser and friend to Rosa. He would soon marry and raise two sons, inspired into fatherhood by his experience with young Al Rosa.

And Rosa, 43, married with three young children, is now senior executive counsel and chief compliance director and ombudsman at General Electric Co., living in Wilton.

Rosa just won a prestigious chairman's award that is conferred on fewer than two dozen people a year from among the top 600 managers at the conglomerate. On Feb. 28, Rosa will present the $25,000 award check to the charity of his choice: Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, which will initiate the John M. Clapp award.

It was — as a friendship, still is — in some ways an exemplary mentorship between a "big" and a "little," as the people at Big Brothers/Big Sisters call each other. Rosa, unlike some littles, was not in or near poverty, as the son of two college professors and musicians. Nor was he on a path of danger, or what we might call wayward. But he had a need.

"The family was really broken by the divorce and I went for a period of years without really connecting with my father, and I think my mom just appreciated the importance of having both parental roles in a person's life," Rosa said. "I can't imagine my life without John. … There's something quite profound about it because John gave this gift to me. I had someone in the world that I could turn to."

Rosa always wanted to be a lawyer — he graduated from Connecticut College and law school at George Washington University — but he credits Clapp with inspiring him toward the field of compliance and ethics.

"It's an area that's about values, doing the right thing," he said. "That comes fundamentally from the instruction that I got from John … when it came to my career this made a lot of sense to me because I had not only an intellectual connection to it but an emotional one as well."

As a little and a big, it wasn't all hiking and outdoorsmanship. Once, they went to a Hartford Whalers hockey game together. "We endured two periods of hockey and then we left," Clapp said.

And with Clapp's help, Rosa reconnected with his father, a concert violinist and professor at Central Connecticut State University, during his high school years. "I witnessed a continued warming of that relationship through his college years," Clapp said.

"My relationship with John was not diminished by the fact that now Dad was in my life," Rosa said. "And my feelings about my own father were not diminished. ... John sort of provided this bridge."

Clapp became a first-time father at age 42, two years after starting as a big with Rosa. "After Al, I knew for sure I wanted to be a father," he said.

As they tell it, the role of "big" is a sensitive balance. The mentor is not a parent, doesn't get involved in family dynamics, but plays a parenting role in some ways. Rosa compares it to baking. "It either works or it doesn't."

Theirs is not a story of salvation or redemption from dramatic depths, but rather uncommon inspiration for a youth facing difficulties that weren't unusual. Of course, the adolescent struggle is universal.

"To me the great lesson is you don't have to look very far to find somebody who can use your help," Rosa said. "What John's act shows to me is that the biggest accomplishment, the thing that defines who we are, is love, compassion and being of service to others."