Advertisement

Professor delivered a moving ‘last lecture’

Times Staff Writer

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. He was 47.

Pausch, a computer science professor and virtual-reality pioneer, died at his home in Chesapeake, Va., of complications from pancreatic cancer, the Pittsburgh university announced.

When Pausch agreed to give the talk, he was participating in a long-standing academic tradition that calls on professors to share their wisdom in a theoretical “last lecture.” A month before the speech, the 46-year-old Pausch was told he had only months to live, a prognosis that heightened the poignancy of his address.

Delivered last September to about 400 students and colleagues, his message about how to make the most of life has been viewed by millions on the Internet. Pausch gave an abbreviated version of it on “Oprah” and expanded it into a best-selling book, “The Last Lecture,” released in April.

Advertisement

Yet Pausch insisted that both the spoken and written words were designed for an audience of three: his children, then 5, 2 and 1.

“I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children,” Pausch wrote in his book.

Unwilling to take time from his family to pen the book, Pausch hired a coauthor, Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal writer who had covered the lecture. During more than 50 bicycle rides crucial to his health, Pausch spoke to Zaslow on a cellphone headset.

“The speech made him famous all over the world,” Zaslow told The Times. “It was almost a shared secret, a peek into him telling his colleagues and students to go on and do great things. It touched so many people because it was authentic.”

Advertisement

Thousands of strangers e-mailed Pausch to say they found his upbeat lecture, laced with humor, to be inspiring and life-changing. They drank up the sentiments of a seemingly vibrant terminally ill man, a showman with Jerry Seinfeld-esque jokes and an earnest Jimmy Stewart delivery.

If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you.

He used that line after projecting CT 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.

Some people believe that those who are dying may be especially insightful because they must make every moment count. Some are drawn to valedictories like the one Pausch gave because they offer a spiritual way to grapple with mortality that isn’t based in religion.

Sandra Yarlott, director of spiritual care at UCLA Medical Center, said researchers, including Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, have observed that work done by dying patients “resonates with people in that timeless place deep within.”

As Pausch essentially said goodbye at Carnegie Mellon, he touched on just about everything but religion while raucously reliving how he achieved most of his childhood dreams. His ambitions included experiencing the weightlessness of zero gravity; writing an article in the World Book Encyclopedia (“You can tell the nerds early on,” he joked); wanting to be both a Disney Imagineer and Captain Kirk from “Star Trek”; and playing professional football.

Onstage, Pausch was a frenetic verbal billboard, delivering as many one-liners as he did phrases to live by.

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Advertisement

When his virtual-reality students at Carnegie Mellon won a flight in a NASA training plane that briefly simulates weightlessness, Pausch was told faculty members were not allowed to fly. Finding a loophole, he applied to cover it as his team’s hometown Web journalist -- and got his 25 seconds of floating.

Since 1997, Pausch had been a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design at Carnegie Mellon. With a drama professor, he founded the university’s Entertainment Technology Center, which teams students from the arts with those in technology to develop projects.

The popular professor had an “enormous and lasting impact” on Carnegie Mellon, said Jared L. Cohon, the university’s president, in a statement. He pointed out that Pausch’s “love of teaching, his sense of fun and his brilliance” came together in his innovative software program, Alice, which uses animated characters and storytelling to make it easier to learn to write computer code.

During the lecture, Pausch joked that he had become just enough of an expert to fulfill one childhood ambition. World Book sought him out to write its virtual-reality entry.

He didn’t get to be Captain Kirk, but actor William Shatner, who played the starship commander, visited Pausch’s lab at Carnegie Mellon. Pausch believed that watching Kirk had taught him leadership skills. After the speech, Pausch was given a walk-on role in the “Star Trek” film due out in 2009.

Inside the auditorium, Pausch dared the crowd to overcome obstacles.

The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people.

After his applications to become a Disney Imagineer were repeatedly rejected, Pausch said, he talked his way into spending a sabbatical in the mid-1990s at the company’s virtual-reality studio. He helped design such virtual-reality rides as Aladdin’s Magic Carpet at Walt Disney World.

Advertisement

Randolph Frederick Pausch was born Oct. 23, 1960, in Baltimore and said he won the “parent lottery” with Fred and Virginia Pausch. His father sold insurance and his mother taught English. As a teenager growing up in Columbia, Md., he was allowed to paint whatever he wanted on his bedroom walls. His artistry included a quadratic equation, elevator doors and the rocket ship that adorns the cover of his book.

After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in 1982, Pausch earned a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. At the University of Virginia, he taught for nine years. When he got tenure, he thanked his research team by taking members to Disney World.

Although he didn’t make it to the NFL, Pausch said playing high school football taught him to master fundamentals and accept criticism. A month after his speech, the Pittsburgh Steelers invited him to a practice. Pausch caught passes, grinning ear to ear.

Last fall, he moved his family to southeastern Virginia so that Jai, his wife of eight years, could be near relatives. He tried to “build memories” with his children, taking his oldest, Dylan, to ride a dolphin and introducing his son Logan to Mickey Mouse at Disney World.

For his final Halloween, his family -- including his youngest, daughter Chloe -- went as the animated characters the Incredibles, personifying his end-of-life mantra:

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

With the newfound status the speech bestowed on him, Pausch called attention to the need for cancer research, appearing before Congress in March and filming a fundraising spot for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The same friends who called him “St. Randy” to poke fun at his media image were “not surprised that he’s moving the world,” Zaslow said. “They always thought he was special. Even his doctor said, ‘If I picked one patient who would become famous and inspire the world, it would be him.’ ”

Weeks after his book was released, 2.3 million copies of it were in print. It is being published in 29 languages.

By the book’s end, 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, Pausch delighted in his mother’s use of humor to keep him humble.

After I got my PhD, 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.

In addition to his wife and children, he is survived by his mother and a sister.

Donations may be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, www.pancan.org, or to Carnegie Mellon’s Randy Pausch Memorial Fund, www.cmu.edu/giving/pausch.

--

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

--

On latimes.com

Last lecture

See Randy Pausch’s “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University and share your thoughts at latimes.com/pausch.


Advertisement