Professor Aimed 'Last Lecture' At His Children ... and Inspired Millions
by Jeffrey Zaslow July 26, 2008; Page A5
In his final months, while millions of people world-wide were watching his inspirational last lecture, Randy Pausch was cocooned at home in Virginia with his wife and three young children.
The computer-science professor from Carnegie Mellon University died at home Friday morning at age 47 of pancreatic cancer.
I first met him when I attended his lecture last September and wrote a column about it for The Wall Street Journal. Weeks earlier, doctors had told him he had just months to live, but he didn't want to dwell on dying. Instead, he decided to give a humorous and life-affirming final lecture to 400 students and colleagues. The talk was videotaped -- WSJ.com posted highlights -- and footage began spreading across thousands of Web sites. (The full talk can now be seen at thelastlecture.com.) In the months afterward, I co-authored a book with Randy titled "The Last Lecture."
Randy had always said that his talk was in large measure meant to be a "message in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children," now ages six, three and two. The fact that tens of millions of other people ended up watching it was thrilling for him, but he was most excited that his kids would one day see it. His last months were part of his continuing process of sharing lessons with them, and finding ways to build memories and show his love. In a sense, every day, he was continuing the lecture he began on stage.
He saw the book, also, as a gift mainly for his children. "How do you get 30 years of parenting into three months?" he asked me. "You write it down is what you do. That's all you can do." He approached his illness as an optimist, a scientist, but also as a realist.
We collaborated on the book while he rode his bike for exercise around his neighborhood in southeastern Virginia. That way he didn't take any time away from his family. While he spoke into a cellphone headset, I listened and tapped away on my office computer. We did this an hour a day for 53 days over the winter, and the book grew out of those conversations.
Randy Pausch, in 2007, holding his children Logan and Chloe, with Dylan on his shoulders.
I got to see his love of life from a front-row seat. Long before he was famous, Randy was celebrated in his field for creating the innovative educational software tool known as "Alice," and for pioneering the Entertainment Technology Center, a master's degree program that trains artists, actors, engineers and computer scientists to collaborate. He had earlier been a professor at the University of Virginia. In a statement Friday, the Association for Computer Machinery said Randy "reformed the art of teaching and mentoring in the computing field."
Randy spent his final months being lauded in arenas far beyond his specialty. ABC News declared him one of its three "Persons of the Year" for 2007. TIME magazine named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. On thousands of Web sites, people wrote essays about what they had learned from him. As a book, "The Last Lecture" became a #1 bestseller internationally, translated into 30 languages.
In a letter Randy received last month, President George W. Bush wrote: "Your extraordinary story has helped to uplift the hearts of millions of Americans… Your love of family, dedication in the classroom, and passion for teaching will stand as a lasting legacy, and I am grateful for your willingness to serve. Your efforts reflect the best of the American spirit."
After Randy's death on Friday, his wife, Jai, said, "Randy was so happy and proud that the lecture and book inspired parents to revisit their priorities, particularly their relationships with their children." His friend Steve Seabolt, who was with him when he died at about 4 a.m. Friday morning, said Randy was still making a few wry jokes even at the end. He died "with his trademark intellect and quick wit intact," Mr. Seabolt said.
Last September, Carnegie Mellon announced a plan to honor the memory of its professor. As a scientist with the heart of a performer, Randy was always a link between the arts and sciences on campus. The Gates Center for Computer Science is now being built, and a footbridge will connect it to the nearby arts building. The bridge will be named the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge.
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• A Final Farewell
Write to Jeffrey Zaslow at firstname.lastname@example.org