‘Renaissance man’ remembered by family, friends after death abroad
Gregory Paul Smith Jr. died July 27 in London, England, where he was studying abroad at the London School of Economics. Smith, who was entering his junior year at Washington University, was 20 at the time of his death.
Remembered by his family as a “renaissance man,” Smith held a leadership position in his fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, and served as a calculus residential peer mentor. He played intramural softball with his fraternity’s team—a continuation of his days playing baseball in high school. He was planning on studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland during the spring semester.
“As he grew older, we became more and more aware of how he viewed the world and the people and learning for the love of learning,” Smith’s father, Greg Sr., said.
Smith used his love of learning, his father added, to motivate and inspire others, whether in the classroom or on the field. In high school, Smith’s patience and desire to help others manifested through his work as a physics tutor. It may not be a surprise, then, that many of his friends at Washington University commented on Smith’s inquisitive and curious mind, specifically his interest in mathematics.
Smith was diagnosed with depression last fall and was battling the disease, as noted in his obituary; however, it never tempered his love for learning or his passion for helping others.
“He wanted people to understand,” Smith’s sister, Katie, said. “He didn’t want people to get the answer. He wanted them to appreciate it and understand it deeper and he challenged people. Not just in physics or calculus, but he challenged people to think deeper about the world and about life and why and how things work.”
Adi Radhakrishnan, a 2016 graduate of the University and Smith’s fraternity brother, added that it was the workings of Smith’s mind and his “intellectual depth” that struck him.
“I think he had one of the most curious minds,” Radhakrishnan said. “When it came to questions about physics or math and some of the complexities that shape and define our world that often get overlooked, Greg was willing to broach that topic and actually learn about that in his spare time and share that knowledge to enhance any sort of conversation we’d have.”
On the field, Smith’s father said Smith knew that—while he had talent and athleticism—he would never be the most talented or the most athletic. Instead, he looked to motivate his friends to reach their full potentials.
Within his fraternity, he embodied that motivational spirit through a nickname he got early on: “Coach.”
Radhakrishnan said he had heard a lot about Smith through Smith’s older sister Katie, a fellow 2016 graduate of Washington University and good friend—especially due to her excitement about Smith following in her footsteps by attending Washington University. When Radhakrishnan first met him at a Halloween party Katie hosted in Smith’s first semester, Smith was dressed in tennis shoes, an athletic polo tucked into khakis and a baseball cap—looking just like a coach.
“I remember when I was a freshman, if I was going to an upperclassman party, I would try to play up my persona and try to seem like a bigger deal than I really was,” Radhakrishnan said, adding that for Smith it wasn’t like that—he was being his genuine self.
And someone noticed. When Smith joined Alpha Delta Phi the next semester, “Coach” quickly became his nickname.
“That kind of just got wrapped up in his persona,” Radhakrishnan said of what he called a “mythical” nickname. “We naturally felt like calling him ‘coach’ and he owned it, he lived it.”
While Radhakrishnan didn’t play for the fraternity softball team, he said Smith was a talented player and “absolutely” the coach of the team.
But Smith made sure to take time for himself too, often turning to the golf course or piano.
“He did a lot of things for other people,” Katie said. “There were a few things he liked to do for himself, and golf was one of them and playing the piano was one of them. He did them because they were soothing to him.”
Smith continued both of these passions while at Washington University, whether playing golf in Forest Park or the piano in the basement of South 40 residence halls.
“I encouraged him to enter the high school talent show and play the piano, and that’s when he explained to me that he played it for himself and for his friends,” Greg Sr. said. “His mom and I would listen to the music as we were going to sleep; he would go downstairs and play the piano before he went to bed. The house was quiet except for the piano playing.”
“But he never wanted to play in public; he never wanted to play for the talent show or whatever. He did that for himself,” Smith’s mother, Roberta, added.
“That was his moment,” Greg Sr. agreed.
Following Smith’s death, his family received a number of letters from Smith’s friends detailing the impact he had on their lives, which they said made them aware of so many more—and different types of—people whose lives Smith had touched.
“Even at 20 years old, he impacted lives that we never realized,” Roberta said.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White also offered her condolences to the family.
“Our thoughts are with his family, friends and so many others in our university community who have suffered a tremendous loss,” White wrote in a statement to Student Life Aug. 2.
In eulogizing his son, Greg Sr. recounted how he would whisper to his son that he would do “good and great things.” He shared memories of a young Smith singing “[You’ve] Got a Friend in Me” in the backseat of their car. He talked of Smith’s mind, genuine character and confidence.
In the eulogy, Greg Sr. also made multiple references to the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which was both his and Smith’s favorite movie.
“His life truly did amount to something, and it was a great thing,” Greg Sr. said of George, the main character of the movie. “It showed him that he did live a wonderful life, even without having done all the things, and travelled the world, that he planned on doing because he impacted so many people in so many positive ways.”
The eulogy’s multiple references to the movie, he said, were no accident.
“He was being treated, and he was getting better. He wanted to get better. He was happy. He was planning a ‘Wonderful Life’,” Greg Sr. noted in the eulogy.
The message of the eulogy, the family wrote to Student Life, was that “we become part of the people we meet, and they become part of us. Gregory’s good and great thing was to share in our lives and become part of us.”
Smith’s family also spoke of the many friends Smith impacted, from a friend who wrote his Common Application essay about him to another friend working toward becoming a ranger in the army who wrote to the family, highlighting how Smith motivated and inspired him.
At a gathering of friends and family in Smith’s honor in early August, Simon Akhnoukh, Smith’s roommate and fraternity brother, spoke of the “adorable, dorky guy that loved his math textbooks almost as much as he loved golf clubs and baseball hats.”
“You never stopped telling me how awesome and successful I was, and I don’t think you ever knew how much I really learned from you. Most importantly, no matter how many times you heard it, you could never really know how valuable you were,” he said, addressing Smith directly in his remarks that his family shared with Student Life.
For Smith’s family, the stories that embody their son and brother are endless, but the words are hard to find. Still, the impact he made on their lives, and those around him, is tangible.
“We know that Gregory loved us, and we loved him, and that’s all that matters,” Roberta said.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression, please reach out to these resources:
Student Health Services: (314) 935-6666
Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center: (314) 935-5099