Randy Pausch, beloved professor and worldwide inspiration, dies at age 47

Sabrina Porter Apr 27, 2008

Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor that garnered worldwide attention in September for his last lecture, died on July 25 from complications related to pancreatic cancer. Pausch, who was 47, passed at his home in Chesapeake, Va. surrounded by his wife, Jai, and three children: Dylan, 6, Logan, 3, and Chloe, 2.

In August of 2007, Pausch was told by his doctors that he had only six months to live, according to a Carnegie Mellon press release. For Pausch, this sentence was not a cause for depression, but rather a call to action.

Pausch channeled this energy into his now-famous last lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which he delivered on Sept. 18, 2007 in McConomy Auditorium. Although the auditorium was filled with current students, faculty, and even some of Pausch’s former students who had traveled across the country to see him speak, Pausch spoke to his audience mainly as if it consisted of his three children, for whom the lecture could serve as a video memory of their father.

“I remember going into the last lecture with a sense of dread,” said Randy Bryant, dean of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. “Fortunately, Randy set an upbeat tone, mixing humor and serious insights, and we were all able to join in with that sense of honesty and openness.”

In his lecture, Pausch encourage his listeners to never give in to life’s obstacles, which he called “brick walls.” Moving to a more lighthearted subject, Pausch spoke of his childhood dream of becoming a football player. He even did a series of pushups in front of the audience, showing that he was still in good shape despite his disease.

“Perhaps the greatest lesson, however, Randy taught us all was how to live, even in the face of great challenges, and how to follow our passion,” stated Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon in an e-mail to the university.

Since then, Pausch’s lecture was adapted into a book, The Last Lecture with co-author Jeffrey Zaslow, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, and continues to be sold worldwide. Pausch’s lecture and story led to his appearance on Good Morning America, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and The Today Show, among others, as well as a mention in a speech by President George W. Bush.

Pausch spoke at Carnegie Mellon University for a second time at the 2008 commencement ceremony on May 21, 2008.

Pausch’s health began to truly decline last week, when he was too ill to update his online blog, available from his home page at www.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch.

While the world was touched by Pausch’s death, the blow hit hard at Carnegie Mellon.

“The whole world has seen [his life] as a result of the last lecture, but we had the privilege of seeing Randy in action for many years,” Bryant said.

Pausch received his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon in 1988 and he later returned to the university in 1997, serving as an associate professor of human-computer interaction and computer science. While at the university, he was co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center and the pioneering director of the Alice software project, a new and kid-friendly way to teach programming to children, particularly through animation. Pausch was also a revolutionary figure in the development of virtual reality, founding the “Building Virtual Worlds” class at the university.

“While [Pausch’s] greatest passion was clearly his family, he did not shy from sharing his passion for his work as a professor, for his students, and for Carnegie Mellon,” Cohon stated.

Pausch was especially known for the challenges that he posed to his students and the levels at which he believed them to be capable.

“[Pausch] had an amazing ability to understand what makes people tick and how to make the best in people come out,” Bryant said. “Around 30 former students of his came for the last lecture, and it was very clear that each of those had been deeply affected by their relationships with [Pausch].”

Pausch’s work outside of the university included Walt Disney Imagineering, Electronic Arts, and Google, Inc. His extensive research and teaching made him a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator and a Lilly Foundation Teaching Fellow.

In honor of the work he did for Carnegie Mellon, the university will build the Randy Pausch Memorial Footbridge, which will connect the Gates Center for Computer Science, now under construction, with the Purnell Center for the Arts, symbolizing Pausch’s role as a bridge between the two disciplines. A campus memorial will be held at a later date, and the Randy Pausch Memorial Fund will be dedicated to the university’s continued research on Alice software.

Steve Seabolt, a close friend of Paush’s and co-worker at Electronic Arts, is pioneering the Randy Pausch Fellowship, which will send two Carnegie Mellon students to South Africa with Teach With Africa to teach the Alice software and related computer subjects.

“This will honor Randy Pausch’s accomplishments and spread his legacy, along with giving high school students computer programming skills during high school years,” said Daniella Marchick, executive assistant at New Cycle Capital, who is partnering with Seabolt on the fellowship.

“We will miss Randy, but we will carry the memory of him and all that he did to make Carnegie Mellon a better university and each of us who knew him a better person,” Cohon stated.