He was a skinny little kid with a quick wit and a big smile and the first day I picked him up we drove a few blocks to the McDonald's on Hiawatha Avenue, where I think he ordered a cheeseburger, and then we talked about what kinds of things he wanted to do over the next few weeks or months.

That was 20 years ago.

Last week Alex Mingus staged a kind of guerrilla wedding before 50 friends and family members beneath the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, where he pledged his love and devotion to Marguerite and her three kids, Lamont, Forest and Olivia.

I've had some personal and professional accomplishments during those 20 years, but I can't recall being prouder than when Alex stood up and claimed his new family, and with them the incredible responsibility of being a father. So excuse me the indulgence of a rare personal column, but this is my best opportunity to shill for mentoring programs, in this case Big Brothers Big Sisters.

I met Alex when he was 11 years old. Smart but restless and bored in school, Alex lived with his single mother, Crystal, a great mom who wanted to make sure Alex had a connection to a positive, responsible adult role model. So she signed him up for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and instead they got me.

Alex, who is biracial, had preferred a black "Big," but there just weren't very many volunteers. So he waited. And waited. And waited.

When my previous little brother moved away, the caseworker sensed that Alex and I might make a good match. I had grown up in the inner city, gone to schools with diverse student bodies and had hung in there despite my previous little brother's shaky family life.

Alex and I hit it off right away. He was a keen social observer with a writer's eye for the absurd and hypocritical. He could mimic various accents and recite whole routines of his favorite comedians. We became fast friends.

Over the years, we did the usual. I put up a basketball hoop in my backyard. We went to movies, played catch with a football, went to the beach.

One year we drove to the Wisconsin Dells, then on to Chicago. A more responsible big brother might have taken Alex to the Art Museum. I took him to the Billy Goat Tavern to show him the source of the famous Saturday Night Live "Cheeseborger-Cheeseborger" skit.

The other day, Alex reminded me of my prank at the Sears Tower. A little kid was leaning against the glass, and I loudly said, "Did you hear about the boy who fell through the glass last week?" The look on the kid's face proved a trip highlight for Alex.

We went to New York and hung out at night in Times Square, back when it was interesting. When a crowd gathered at one point, I told Alex: Those German tourists are going to get conned in three-card monte. He was so impressed when someone yelled "Cops!" and fled with a $100 bill that I had to persuade him that three-card monte was not a legitimate career path.

We had some tough times. Alex was "uninvited" to two private schools. There were times he let me down, and times I let him down. But we remained friends and changed each other's lives.

Gloria Lewis, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Twin Cities, said there are currently 750 kids waiting for a mentor to meet with them once a week.

"We don't want all of your time, we want some of your time," said Lewis. "We want people who will enjoy being with a kid who may not have many adults in their lives. You may be it."

I could easily appeal to someone's charitable nature to persuade them to try being a big brother or sister, but I could just as well appeal to their selfishness: I think I got more out of my friendship than Alex did.

I got to know his terrific family, helped him pick out his first suit and watched him do a cartwheel across the stage when he got his high school diploma. That's hard to top.

When we met for lunch a few days before his wedding, he told me how meeting Marguerite and her kids had matured him. "They've made me a better person," he said.

I would say the same thing about Alex.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702