Professor who gave 'last lecture' dies at 47

Randy Pausch's speech was viewed by millions online

July 26, 2008|By Valerie J. Nelson | Valerie J. Nelson,Los Angeles Times

Randy Pausch, a terminally ill professor whose earnest farewell lecture at Carnegie Mellon University became an Internet phenomenon and best-selling book that turned him into a symbol for living and dying well, died yesterday. 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 theoretical "last lecture," he was participating in a long-standing academic tradition. A month before giving the speech, the 46-year-old received the diagnosis that would heighten the poignancy of his address.

Originally delivered in 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. Mr. Pausch gave an abbreviated version of it on Oprah and expanded it into a best-selling book, The Last Lecture, released in April.

Yet Mr. 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," Mr. Pausch wrote in his book.

Unwilling to take time from his family to write the book, Mr. Pausch hired a co-author, Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal writer who covered the lecture. During more than 50 bicycle rides crucial to his health, Mr. Pausch spoke to Mr. Zaslow via a cell-phone headset.

"The speech made him famous all over the world," Mr. Zaslow told the Los Angeles 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."

"If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you," Mr. Pausch wrote.

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.

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), becoming a Disney Imagineer, receiving a visit from Captain Kirk from Star Trek and playing professional football.

Onstage, Mr. Pausch was a frenetic oral 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 won a flight in a National Aeronautics and Space Administration training plane that briefly simulates weightlessness, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

During the lecture, Mr. 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.

Actor William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, visited Mr. Pausch's lab at Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Pausch believed that watching Mr. Shatner 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.

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

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

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, 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.

In addition to his wife, Jai, and three children, Mr. Pausch is survived by his mother and a sister.

Valerie J. Nelson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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