Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Professor Randy Pausch became famous for his Last Lecture, delivered during his struggle with cancer.
Randy Pausch was a popular Computer Science professor whose case of pancreatic cancer brought him unexpected fame. Pausch was born on October 23, 1960 in Baltimore, Maryland. His impact was most prominent as a teacher, both at the University of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon University. He created new educational programs such as the “Building Virtual Worlds” course, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) masters program, and the computer programming software, Alice. Most of the world knows him from his last lecture on “Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams” delivered in 2007. He died in Chesapeake, Virginia on July 25, 2008.
Randolph Frederick Pausch was a Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor who encountered accidental fame through his inspiring last lecture on life. He was born on October 23, 1960 in Baltimore, Maryland to Fred and Virginia Pausch, and had one older sister, Tamara Pausch Mason. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, Pausch was quirky and smart from a young age. Instead of putting posters of movie stars or athletes on his walls, he got creative and painted the quadratic formula right next to his door. As a child, Pausch dreamt “childhood dreams” that he would spend the entirety of his short life working to achieve. Among these dreams were experiencing zero gravity, playing in the NFL, authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia, being Captain Kirk, winning stuffed animals, and being a Disney Imagineer.
Pausch graduated from Brown University in 1982 with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science. As a student at Brown, he met his lifelong mentor, Andy Van Dam, who convinced Pausch to pursue graduate school and make a career out of teaching. When Pausch was initially rejected from the graduate program at CMU, it was Van Dam who afforded him a second chance at acceptance. The two remained close for the rest of Pausch’s career. Pausch graduated from CMU in 1988 with a Ph.D. in Computer Science. Following graduation, he served on the Computer Science faculty at the University of Virginia (UVA) from 1988 to 1997. During his time at UVA, Pausch achieved one of his childhood dreams during a sabbatical from teaching; he became an Imagineer for Disney. As an Imagineer, he used creativity and technology to design a virtual reality attraction in the Disney World theme parks. He was then offered a full-time position with Disney, but he returned to his “true calling” – teaching. In 1997, Pausch left UVA to teach at his alma mater, CMU, in 1997. Pausch then married Jai Glasgow in 2000. The couple lived in Pittsburgh and had three children: Logan, Dylan, and Chloe.
While teaching at CMU, Pausch became popular through his lectures and his commitment to students. Not only was he charismatic, energetic, and a true “Tigger” (the bouncy, optimistic, and fun character from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), but he was dedicated to working hard for the sake of learning. Colleagues from University of Virginia and CMU recall Pausch being an extraordinary professor who got students excited and engaged. His mentor, Van Dam, admired him as well: “[Students] responded to him as athletes do to a great coach who cares not only about winning but about the team players as individuals.”
He created a course that became immensely popular called “Building Virtual Worlds.” The course demanded that students work in groups to create their own virtual realities. Pausch described it as, “a high-wire act that brought together students from many different disciplines; writers and computer programmers and artists were forced to work together intensively in small groups… about creating virtual worlds, but there was an underlying lesson: ‘How do you behave in a way that other people will respect you and want to keep working with you?’” Making students learn one thing while they think they’re learning something is else is what Pausch famously called the “head fake.” In football this means faking movement in one direction, and then heading the opposite way. Pausch’s “head fake” was successful. The course became so popular that it exploded into an entire masters program based in the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). Pausch was the co-founder of the ETC along with Don Marinelli, who is now taking the program global. Additionally, Pausch created educational software, called Alice, to teach kids computer programming using a fun and interactive 3-D environment.
In the summer of 2006, Pausch thought that he was suffering from hepatitis; instead his symptoms were identified as pancreatic cancer. After undergoing a series of experimental treatments, he found out in August of 2007 that the cancer had metastasized to his liver and spleen, essentially giving him no chance of survival. Doctors estimated another three to six months of good health. To help with his family’s recovery after his death, Pausch moved with his wife and three children to Virginia in order to be close to extended family. As both Pausch and his wife agreed, “you can't control the cards you're dealt, just how you play the hand.”
Pausch found some extraordinary ways to “play his hand.” Before his diagnosis, he had intended to participate in “Journeys”, a speaker series formerly known as “The Last Lecture Series” at CMU that fall. Traditionally, professors are challenged to write a speech as though it were their last lecture before dying. Pausch decided to use his “last lecture” as an opportunity to leave a legacy for his children. He spoke on September 18, 2007 to a room of 400 people on “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” His popularity at the university was evident, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation both before his speech and after. Though the audience was aware of Pausch’s diagnosis, he rarely mentioned his illness. He spoke movingly and humorously about his successes, failures, and lessons learned on the path to achieving his dreams. His successes included authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia on virtual reality, experiencing zero gravity, working as a Disney Imagineer, and winning many stuffed animals. While he never “became Captain Kirk” or played in the NFL, Pausch was able to meet William Shatner and he played football with members of the Pittsburgh Steelers later that year.
More than anything, Pausch told his audience, he valued people and relationships in his final months. He praised those who facilitated his dreams: professors, friends, and family. What Pausch found even more rewarding was the opportunity to pass on this gift.
As a professor, he had the opportunity to facilitate the dreams of his students. Therefore Pausch encouraged his audience to achieve their dreams, but also enable the dreams of others. As he reminded the graduates at the CMU 2008 graduation, “You will need to find your passion…From my experience…that passion will be grounded in people and it will be grounded in the relationships you have with people and what they think of you when your time comes.” Pausch followed his words by living everyday with his family in mind. He delivered his “Last Lecture” with an emotional finale: “Did you figure out the head fake? It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life…Did you figure out the second head fake? The talk’s not for you, it’s for my kids.” Pausch’s lecture emphasized what really mattered to him in his final days.
Little did Pausch know that a speech written with only three people in mind would reach a worldwide audience. In addition to the 400 members of his original audience, there were over six million who would hear his lecture through YouTube. Jeff Zaslow, who co-authored the book The Last Lecture, explains Pausch’s appeal: I think we’re hungry for something that’s real…Celebrity today is so plastic and doesn’t resonate with people, but there’s something about what Randy had to say that really touched a nerve. He’s real; he’s just telling it the way it is. Many people have known someone that died, or are dying themselves. All of us want to live and live life to the fullest. He articulated that in a way that captured people’s imaginations.
Thanks to the millions of viewers, Pausch became an everyday celebrity. TIME Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2008. He was invited on Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and ABC ran a one-hour special about him. People wrote e-mails, letters, and responded to blogs saying that Pausch had given them hope and inspired them to stop feeling sorry for themselves. Others claimed he taught them to pay attention to their families or do something that they had always wanted to do.
He also used the story of his disease to make an impact on pancreatic cancer research. Pausch created his own website to increase awareness about the lack of funding for pancreatic cancer. Here, he listed resources including websites with more information, a blog of his daily progress, videos of him speaking out for funding to cure pancreatic cancer, and his testimony before Congress. Pauch appeared before Congress’ Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee on March 13, 2007 to lobby for an increase in research funding on behalf of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Outliving his diagnosis by months, Pausch died of complications from pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008 in Chesapeake, Virginia. He left behind children aged five, two, and one, with his widow, Jai. CMU plans to honor Pausch by creating the “Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge,” connecting a Computer Science building with an arts building, a metaphor for the collaboration he worked to accomplish while he was alive. Furthermore, his life lessons continue to touch people after his death, as the YouTube version of his lecture continues to be viewed hundreds of times a day and his book, The Last Lecture, became an instant bestseller.
The Last Lecture. (with Jeffrey Zaslow) New York: Hyperion, 2008.
Learning to Program With Alice. (with Wanda P. Dann and Stephen Cooper) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.