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OBITUARIES : Randy Pausch, 1960 - 2008

Professor delivered a moving 'last lecture'

July 26, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer
  • Randy Pausch giving his "last lecture" at Carnegie-Mellon University on Sept. 18, 2007. Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor, died today.
Randy Pausch giving his "last lecture" at Carnegie-Mellon… (Carnegie-Mellon University )

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.

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."

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.

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.

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