On July 25, 2008, at four o'clock in the morning, the world lost one of its greatest teachers, not only in terms of academia, but also in the school of life. Dr. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lost his short-lived battle with pancreatic cancer at his home in Virginia at the age of 47, leaving behind a wife and three small children—along with a nation that mourns the loss of a man they've never even met.
The fascinating yet simple story of this young professor and mentor began long before he became a household name thanks to a 90-minute lecture given at CMU. The lecture, presented to 400, would soon be seen by more than ten million people as it became an internet sensation and bestselling book, quickly propelling the unassuming family man into the spotlight.
Born on October 23, 1960, in Baltimore, Maryland, Randolph Frederick Pausch spent his early years growing up in Columbia, Maryland. He routinely credited his zest for life to both of his parents, who allowed him to express himself, dream big, and then pursue those dreams. His dreams included playing in the National Football League, winning the biggest stuffed animals at the amusement park, walking in zero gravity, working for the Walt Disney Company, and being published in the World Book Encyclopedia. Only one of these childhood dreams—playing for an NFL team—had eluded Randy at the time of his death, although thanks to an impromptu practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he spent a memorable afternoon catching passes from his favorite player, Hines Ward. Randy even went on to kick a perfect field goal.
Randy graduated from Oakland Mills High School in his hometown and then went on to attend Brown University—although he almost didn't get into the prestigious school as he found himself wait-listed. With his characteristic refusal to give up and plenty of persistent phone calls, Randy was admitted to the university. He went on to graduate magna cum laude in May 1982 with a bachelor's degree in computer science.
Six years later, in August 1988, Randy received his Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He went on to become an assistant and associate computer science professor at the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he remained until 1997. During his tenure, Randy realized one of his dreams by completing sabbaticals at Walt Disney Imagineering as well as at the video game company Electronic Arts (EA).
When Randy was 38 years old, he became smitten with a graduate student named Jai Glasgow, whom he met at a lecture. She regularly refused his efforts, but his persistence soon won out. Eventually, he and Jai married and had three children together: two sons and a daughter—Dylan, Logan, and Chloe—who today are six, four, and two, respectively.
In his rather short life and career, Randy managed to achieve more accomplishments than many of us even dream about. Charismatic, brilliant, and flamboyant are just some of the adjectives friends and colleagues use to describe the teacher who, during his ten years at CMU, went on to start the popular course Building Virtual Worlds, which brought together students studying various subjects, including artists, writers, and computer programmers, all working together to create and design virtual reality worlds.
Along with fellow professor of drama, Don Marinelli, Randy also started CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) in 1998, which has evolved into the place to be for students learning the high-tech world of video gaming and special effects. Randy also developed Alice, a free computer application that teaches children the basics of programming and creating their own computer animated stories. To date, these stories have been downloaded over a million times.
As the author of five books and countless articles—including one on virtual reality published in the World Book Encyclopedia (another dream realized)—as well as the recipient of two awards from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for achievements in computer science education, Randy was also featured in Time magazine's World's Top 100 Most Influential People of 2008.
Yet another lasting honor came when the city of Pittsburgh proudly proclaimed November 19, 2007, to be Dr. Randy Pausch Day.
A Lasting Legacy
Randy's fight for his life began in September 2006, after doctors told him and wife Jai that he had incurable pancreatic cancer—three words that resonated with finality through both of their minds and souls. The doctor had even grimmer news: Randy had three to six months of relatively good health left. According to the couple, they spent many nights first crying and asking why, and then coming to terms with what the near future would hold for them as well as their three children—all of whom were far too young to understand the dire situation they were now in.
Randy endured chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to remove a third of his pancreas and part of his stomach. Just eight months after the procedure, the cancer returned with a vengeance. However, instead of wallowing in self-pity, Randy decided to keep embracing life and living every second he had left to the absolute fullest.
Randy's final book, ''The Last Lecture,'' was co-written with Wall Street Journal writer Jeffrey Zaslow, to whom Randy dictated the book by cell phone as he rode his bicycle. Zaslow attended the lecture that inspired the book and wrote an article that instantly spawned countless emails and letters in response to the simple yet profound messages Randy expressed in the lecture. Published in April 2008 and translated into over 30 different languages, the book quickly rose to the top of the bestseller's list as millions scrambled to read the words of this dying man who managed to maintain his positive outlook on life even until the very end.
At the end of the now-famous lecture, which took place the day after Jai's birthday, the couple kissed and embraced amid thunderous applause. The audience leapt to their feet as they sung ''Happy Birthday'' while his wife whispered pleadingly into his ear, ''Please don't die.''
In honor of the enormous impact Randy had on Carnegie Mellon, its students, his colleagues, the community, and ultimately the world around him, the university will be remembering the beloved professor with the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge, which will connect an existing arts building with the new Gates Center for Computer Science (currently under construction). A representative from the university said that the footbridge was to remind everyone who visited the campus of a great man who once taught his students to live with passion, integrity, and honesty as well as to prompt those who didn't know him to ask about his life and work.
In May 2008, Randy spoke one last time at CMU, giving the commencement speech to the year's graduates and urging them to live their dreams and pursue their passions no matter what obstacles stood in their way. He poignantly ended his talk by zealously embracing his wife and carrying her offstage as everyone stood in honor of the respected professor of both science and life.