07/17/2013 at 05:00 PM EDT
He played a smooth-singing, sweet-talking jock on TV, but in real life Cory Monteith
was fond of describing himself with one word: awkward.
Even after the gangly, 6'3" star rocketed to stardom on the FOX smash Glee
, he still "thought of himself that way," says Maureen Webb, an early mentor who discovered Monteith when he was a 20-year-old self-described "wayward youth."
Dining with Webb and his manager Elena Kirschner at Vancouver eatery East of Main on July 11, Monteith – who had completed rehab for substance abuse two months earlier – "was in great spirits," says Webb.
When the subject turned to his work with Project Limelight Society, a nonprofit arts program for kids, "his face lit up," says Webb, who cofounded the group. Having overcome his own tough childhood, "he said, 'The performing arts saved my life once. I want to give back.'"