March 15, 2012 at 8:28 AM ET
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Greg Smith was a principled and competitive student, the kind of person whose strong sense of right and wrong probably pushed him to resign from Goldman Sachs in a scathing letter to an international newspaper, his former teacher and coach said.
A quiet, unassuming child, the South African first attended the private Jewish King David's High School in suburban Johannesburg before winning a scholarship to Stanford University in the United States.
Smith then joined Goldman Sachs, a workplace he once loved but described in his resignation letter in The New York Times on Wednesday as having developed an environment "as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it".
"He was a remarkable young man, exceptionally intelligent with an integrity that is probably unequalled," Elliot Wolf, the school's retired headmaster, told Reuters in an interview.
"An absolutely remarkable man with high principles. He was an asset to the school in every possible way."
Wolf, who is now retired after 34 years at the school including 28 as headmaster, said he remembered Smith well from teaching him Latin and that he was loved by all because he was polite, unassuming and decent.
The Goldman Sachs banker sat a total of eight exams in his final year of secondary school in 1996, winning a distinction in every subject, Wolf said. According to school records, Smith's subjects included math, advanced math, Hebrew, English, Afrikaans and accounting.
"He was a wonderful young man with the highest principles. That was already part of his character when he was very, very young," Wolf said.
He said he was amazed Smith would take such a stand, suggesting others would probably bend their ethics to suit a company that was rewarding them handsomely.
Smith, who worked in equity derivatives, said it had made him ill at Goldman to hear his colleagues joke about cheating clients.
"Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as 'muppets'," Smith said.
In Britain, "muppet" is slang for a stupid person.
'Always did what was right'
Wolf also recalled Smith as a skilled table tennis player. Smith, in his 30s, said in his letter one of the proudest moments of his life was winning the bronze medal at the Maccabiah Games in Israel for table tennis.
Rainer Sztab, chair of the Gauteng Maccabi Table Tennis Club, where Smith played in South Africa regularly in the 1990s when he was a teenager, remembered him as an "outstanding kid".
"He was a stand-up kid, he always did what was right," Sztab told Reuters, saying Smith twice played for the South African Maccabi team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, as a junior in 1993 and as a senior in 1997.
But he said Smith was never a member of the South African national table tennis team, contrary to what was stated in his Goldman Sachs biography.
Sztab said Smith was "very bright and really well-liked and behaved".
"He was very competitive. He was just starting to get the edge on the top players in Gauteng province," he added.
Sztab said he was not surprised by the manner of Smith's dramatic public resignation from Goldman Sachs. "He did well to come from South Africa to become a Wall Street banker."
He said Smith had called him two years ago to say hello while on a visit to South Africa.
"He said it was going great."