Randy Pausch, a terminally ill professor whose earnest farewell lecture at Carnegie Mellon University became an Internet phenomenon and bestselling book that turned him into a symbol for living and dying well, died Friday (July 25, 2008). He was 47.
Mr. Pausch, who was a computer science professor and virtual-reality pioneer, died at his home in Chesapeake, Va., of complications from pancreatic cancer, officials at the Pittsburgh university announced.
When Mr. Pausch agreed to give a "last lecture," he was participating in a long-standing academic tradition. Professors are asked to think about what matters to them most and give a hypothetical final talk. But a month before giving the speech, the 46-year-old Mr. Pausch received the diagnosis that would heighten the poignancy of his address.
His message about how to make the most of life has been viewed by millions on the Internet. Mr. Pausch gave an short version of it on Oprah and expanded it into a best-selling book, The Last Lecture, released in April.
Mr. Pausch insisted that both the spoken and written words were designed for an audience of three — his children, then 5, 2 and 1.
Unwilling to take time from his family to pen the book, Mr. Pausch hired a co-author, Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal writer who covered the lecture.
"It was almost a shared secret, a peek into him telling his colleagues and students to go on and do great things," Zaslow said. "It touched so many people because it was authentic."
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If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.
He used that line after projecting CAT scans, complete with helpful arrows pointing to the tumors on his liver as he addressed "the elephant in the room" that made every word carry more weight.
As Mr. Pausch essentially said goodbye at Carnegie Mellon, he touched on just about everything but religion as he raucously relived how he achieved most of his childhood dreams. They included experiencing the weightlessness of zero gravity, writing an article in the World Book Encyclopedia ("You can tell the nerds early on," he joked), receiving a visit from Capt. Kirk from Star Trek and playing professional football.
Actor William Shatner, who played Kirk, visited Mr. Pausch's lab at Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Pausch believed that watching Kirk had taught him leadership skills. After the speech, Mr. Pausch was given a walk-on role in the Star Trek film due out in 2009.
• • •
By the book's end, Mr. Pausch sounds like a parent imparting advice as fast as he can. The chapters grow shorter as he tries to fit it all in: Don't obsess over what people think. No job is beneath you. Tell the truth.
Ever the comedian, Mr. Pausch delighted in his mother's use of humor to keep him humble.
After I got my Ph.D., my mother took great relish in introducing me as, "This is my son. He's a doctor, but not the kind that helps people."
His mother couldn't have been more wrong.