Feature

Randy Pausch

The professor whose last lecture inspired millions

The professor whose last lecture inspired millions
Randy Pausch
1960–2008

After Randy Pausch got his Ph.D. in computer science, his mother would say, “He’s a doctor, but not the kind that helps people.” She was wrong. On Sept. 18, 2007, Pausch, who was dying of incurable cancer, delivered an academic lecture so personal, humorous, and uplifting that it has been viewed online by more than 10 million people and is now a No. 1 best-selling book.

Pausch was a dynamic teacher, said The Washington Post, “once taking a sledgehammer to a VCR to make a point about user-friendly technology.” Joining Carnegie Mellon University in 1997, he helped build it into one of the nation’s leading centers for the science of virtual reality. But in 2006, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With time running out, Pausch joined the university’s “‘Last Lecture’ series, in which professors impart lessons from a lifetime of teaching and learning.” Opening his 76-minute talk with “ominous images of his CAT scans,” he shared his grim prognosis. Then, “to prove he was otherwise in excellent condition, the trim Pausch snapped off several push-ups.”

Pausch went on to speak “of the importance of child-like wonder,” said The New York Times, and how it had inspired him to do many things: “to win giant stuffed animals at carnivals, to walk in zero gravity, to design Disney rides.” He offered such wry, uplifting observations as, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” In the audience of more than 400 was Jeffrey Zaslow, a Carnegie alumnus and a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. An article Zaslow wrote about the talk gave Pausch a national audience, and when the lecture was posted on YouTube, the response was overwhelming. “Some said he inspired them to quit feeling sorry for themselves, or to move on from divorces, or to pay more attention to their families. Others said they decided not to commit suicide because of it.” The fame also allowed Pausch to indulge his few remaining wishes. “When the Pittsburgh Steelers heard he had dreamed of playing pro football, they let him participate in a practice.”

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