Randy Pausch: 2008 Pittsburgher of the Year
Randy Pausch: His "Last Lecture" Lives On
Randy Pausch did "not go gentle into that good night," to quote from poet Dylan Thomas. The heroic last act in the life of this CMU professor has left an enduring legacy.
Photos courtesy of the Pausch family
CMU professor Randy Pausch's last lecture, titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," was a YouTube phenomenon that captivated the world. His book, based on the same principles, became a runaway best-seller. Pausch died last July of pancreatic cancer at age 47. He lived an extraordinary life, and in dying he inspired others on how to live.
When professor Randy Pausch stood before some 400 students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University on Sept. 18, 2007, to deliver his last-ever lecture, the audience rose to its feet and cheered. "Make me earn it," he mock-chided them, urging them to sit. "You did!" shouted a voice from the crowd.
Teacher. Mentor. Author. Activist. Husband. Father. Brother. Son. Friend. To each of these roles, Pausch, who died this past July of complications from pancreatic cancer, brought the sum total of his energies, even when the disease had drained most of his seemingly inexhaustible supply.
Most people would consider themselves fortunate at the end of their lives to have made just one important contribution to society. Yet, in Pausch's case, people across academic disciplines and representing many causes offer differing theories about the way he made an impact on the world. The astonishing truth may be that each of them is right, and that this Pittsburgh educator, hailed by one colleague as "the most famous computer scientist who ever lived," has the distinction of leaving behind a legacy as bright and variegated as a constellation of stars. In recognition of that vast legacy, Randy Pausch is Pittsburgh magazine's 2008 "Pittsburgher of the Year."
REMEMBERING A LEGACY: "WE WILL TELL THEM"
Now that the lights have long gone down and the stage has been struck since the "last lecture," it seems appropriate to pause and reflect upon the life that earned Randy Pausch that standing ovation and the legacy that remains. The hardest part about examining Pausch's legacy may be figuring out just where to begin.
At Pausch's memorial service on Sept. 22 at Carnegie Mellon, nearly one year to the day after his last lecture, university president Jared Cohon announced the creation of a new footbridge spanning the distance between the school's fine-arts and computer-science buildings, which will bear the professor's name. Future generations of CMU students and faculty, Cohon predicted, will walk across that bridge and wonder just who was Randy Pausch. Added Cohon, proudly: "We will tell them."
Certainly, there was no institution that Pausch cared more about or identified more strongly with than Carnegie Mellon University. He was thrilled when Hyperion, which published his last lecture in the form of a book that rocketed to No. 1 on The New York Times' "Best Seller List," agreed to put Carnegie Mellon's name on the book's cover. But Pausch's memory -- thanks to his book (since translated into 30 languages), Web diary and television appearances -- belongs to a larger community now.
It may be more accurate to say that Pausch's memory belongs to every person -- from Pittsburgh to Paris -- who has heard his message that the only way to face death is to truly live. Before he gave his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University -- the motivational speech titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," which would reach an audience of millions via the Internet -- Pausch was already well-known for a lecture he had given at the University of Virginia on time management.
Pausch, who taught computer science at the University of Virginia for nine years before joining Carnegie Mellon's faculty in 1997, practiced what he preached. At his memorial service, CMU computer-science professor Jessica Hodgins recalled how Pausch used to measure two-thirds of a cup of water for his daily oatmeal with separate one-thirds measuring cups until he found a single two-thirds cup that would "save him one hand motion." Former student Emily Treat, 28, of Boston, recalls that when Pausch's first child, Dylan, was a newborn and keeping him up at night with his crying, Pausch would come into his Building Virtual Worlds class the next day with freshly baked brownies.
"If I'm going to be up all night, I might as well do something productive with my time," Treat remembers his telling her class. "Time is all you have, and it must be explicitly managed," wrote Pausch in The Last Lecture, his 2008 best-selling memoir. "You may find one day that you have less than you think."
That's exactly what happened to Pausch in August 2006, when, at age 45, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- a virtual death sentence. Of the 13 most common forms of cancer, pancreatic cancer is among the most lethal. According to American Cancer Society statistics, 75 percent of pancreatic-cancer patients die within the first year of diagnosis; a mere 5 percent live beyond five years. More than 37,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year. There are no early-detection methods.
As fate would have it, this expert in time management now faced the ultimate time-management challenge -- how to spend the last months of his life. He posed that very question to himself in the introduction to his memoir. "I am the father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams," wrote Pausch. "While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn't do them, or me, any good." Obviously, he continued, he could embrace every remaining moment with his family and make the logistical plans necessary to secure their future without him. "The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next 20 years."
That's where his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon came in. "I knew what I was doing that day," Pausch explained in his memoir. He had been invited to give the lecture as part of an ongoing series of campus talks called "Journeys," in which professors are asked to imagine what topic they'd wish to lecture about if it were the last chance they'd ever have to speak to a student audience. For Pausch, though, the lecture would not be mere whimsy.
Under the "ruse" of giving an academic lecture to Carnegie Mellon students, many of whom already knew about his illness, "I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children. If I were a painter, I would have painted for them. If I were a musician, I would have composed music. But I am a lecturer. So I lectured," Pausch wrote in his memoir.
But Pausch had another motivation for giving the last lecture. A gifted public speaker -- and not just in comparison with the average computer scientist -- he wanted to perform one last time, to show off his oratorical skills. "An injured lion wants to know if he can still roar," he explained to his wife, Jai, who initially opposed the idea of his giving a big farewell speech considering the precious time she knew he would spend working on it and not with his family. "It's about dignity and self-esteem," he persuaded her, "which isn't quite the same as vanity." It worked. He got the green light.
For the most part, though, Pausch thought of his last lecture as a way to answer the overriding question that his three young children, Dylan (now 6), Logan (now 4) and Chloe (now 2) would someday ask: "Who was my dad?" Unaware that his lecture would vault onto the Internet and be downloaded by millions, Pausch assured his wife that CMU would record the lecture and transfer it onto a DVD for her. "When the kids are older, you can show it to them. It'll help them understand who I was and what I cared about," he told her.
A perfectionist, Pausch devoted many of his final hours to planning the lecture. Still, in doing so, he did not forget the "obvious part" of his time challenge. He saw to the less romantic tasks: planning for his family's financial future, choosing a school for the children and deciding whether to stay in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, the Pausches sold their house in Shadyside and relocated to Chesapeake, Va., to be closer to Jai's family. The decision to move was a hard one, especially after the Pausches had recently finished remodeling their Ellsworth Avenue ranch house into what Randy Pausch's niece Laura Woolley describes as the couple's "dream home," and had already enrolled Dylan in kindergarten at Shady Side Academy Junior School.
Cheryl Little, head of the Point Breeze private school, recalls that her meeting in the fall of 2006 with Randy and Jai Pausch was unlike any other prospective parent meeting she'd had in her career. Normally, she explains, these are informal discussions lasting about 20 minutes in which she asks parents to tell her a little more about their child. The Pausches "took it in a different direction," interviewing her for almost two hours. "It was the hardest, most intense interview I've ever had," she says. Randy Pausch wanted to see a pie chart breaking down the school's financial expenditures as well as the results of its latest self-study for accreditation. "No one has ever asked for that, especially for a 3-year-old," Little adds.
Halfway through the interview, Randy Pausch paused to explain himself. "I know I'm being very intense, a jerk, but I'm dying," he told Little. "I have three young children who are not yet in school, and I have to make sure they are well taken care of and in the best place for them." Little, a parent and cancer survivor herself, understood. She offered to introduce him to the heads of Shady Side's Middle and Senior schools in Fox Chapel, even though Dylan wouldn't arrive on their campuses for years. Pausch insisted on it. "He was the most passionate parent I've ever seen," Little says.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
Pausch had not always been such a family man. A bachelor until age 39, "he had experience in dating," says older sister Tammy Mason of Lynchburg, Va. When Pausch met 31-year-old Jai Glasgow in the fall of 1998 at the University of North Carolina -- she was a graduate student in comparative literature, and he was giving a guest lecture on virtual reality -- he found that his reputation as a Don Juan preceded him.
Pausch was immediately smitten with the tall, striking brunette. Because she had been married once before, Glasgow was wary. "Having been divorced and remarried myself, if you have gone through a failed marriage, you become extraordinarily careful with your heart. You don't want to get yourself hurt again," Mason explains.
Glasgow agreed to meet Pausch for a drink at a Chapel Hill wine bar (although he didn't drink), and they dated long-distance for months. Professing his love for her that spring, Pausch asked Glasgow to move to Pittsburgh and marry him. Her response? To put up "the most formidable brick wall I ever came upon," Pausch recalled in his memoir. Reeling, he turned to his parents for help. They advised him to be patient and supportive, to consider the situation from her point of view. About a week later, she called. She was flying to Pittsburgh to be with him. The brick wall was coming down. "I waited until I was 39 to get married because it took me that long to find someone whose happiness meant more to me than my own," Pausch recalled in his memoir. "As corny as it sounds, Randy was madly, irrationally, adoringly in love with Jai," echoes Pausch's close friend Steve Seabolt.
Randy and Jai Pausch were married on May 20, 2000, beneath a 100-year-old oak tree on the lawn of the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze. She wanted a small, intimate ceremony. Always a showman, he wanted something big and dramatic. Here was the compromise: After the ceremony, the couple lifted off in a hot-air balloon. "It's like a fairy-tale ending to a Disney movie," the bride exclaimed. Unfortunately, their balloon drifted far off course, and they found themselves unable to land. The balloon finally touched down that night, perilously close to an oncoming train. They ran for their lives.
Ever since childhood, Pausch had found his often-oversized dreams threatened by obstacles and barriers. He chose the brick wall as one of the central metaphors of his personal philosophy. "Brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people," he said during his last lecture. Pausch attributed much of his success in achieving his childhood dreams, despite the many brick walls he faced, to the good start he got in life. He called it "winning the parent lottery."
A LIFE BEGINS: MEET RANDOLPH FREDERICK PAUSCHK PAUSCH
Randolph Frederick Pausch was born on Oct. 23, 1960, in Columbia, Md., a middle-class suburb of Baltimore. His father, Fred Pausch, was a lawyer and insurance-company executive. His mother, Virginia, taught English. Like author Annie Dillard's childhood home in Pittsburgh, Pausch's was full of books. "Growing up, I thought there were two types of families," Pausch wrote in his memoir, "those who need a dictionary to get through dinner and those who don't." Family dinners were the scene of many "lively discussions and debates about philosophy, religion and morals," explains Tammy Mason. Their father taught them to thrive on competition, and it was a lesson "we both took deeply into our souls," she stresses.
"Randy in his heart really wanted to be the smarter of the two, and he strived very hard to achieve this goal," she continues. "By age 7, he could read something and recall it word for word, thought for thought. I am no slouch, but I could not keep up with him." Although the two siblings "fought like cats and dogs," they did collaborate on the design of what could be considered Pausch's first virtual environment -- his bedroom.
Halfway through high school, Pausch asked his parents' permission to paint the walls of his bedroom with "things that matter to me." Although his mother fretted briefly about resale value, both parents consented as a way to encourage his creativity. With the help of his sister and lifelong friend Jack Sheriff, he painted a quadratic equation ("You can spot the nerds early," Pausch joked in his last lecture); a rocket ship; an elevator door and a scene from Greek mythology. The latter in the list is worth explaining further.
Pandora was the woman given the box containing all evil. As the story goes, when she opened the box, evil rushed out and invaded the world. In Pausch's childhood painting, however, Pandora's box opened to reveal not a holocaust but a single word: "Hope." A joke, perhaps, like the glib word-paintings of artists Cary Leibowitz and Sean Landers, but the picture was possibly more, possibly the early makings of Pausch's personal philosophy -- the notion that even in the darkest abyss one can still have hope.
(Years later, after meeting Pausch and hearing him tell this story on her TV program, Oprah Winfrey would encourage parents to allow their children to paint their rooms.)
After high school, Pausch attended Brown University in Rhode Island. On the Ivy League campus, Pausch's self-confidence and frank speaking style impressed some but annoyed others. His sophomore roommate, Stephen Beck, recalls how Pausch had urged him to be more assertive in order to get ahead in the competitive field of computer science. "Get visible. Get involved with cutting-edge technology. Get your ass on that new machine," he remembers Pausch's telling him. "He had the ability to give good advice in very blunt terms that people needed to hear. At 19, he had vision."
To get ahead in Brown's computer-science department, a student could work for professor Andy van Dam, the department chair and something of a mythical figure in his own right. Pausch's fellow students urged Van Dam not to hire him as a teaching assistant in one of his classes, calling him "arrogant." In truth, "he could come off as arrogant, even domineering and intimidating because he was so cocksure and a bit sarcastic, but he clearly meant well," Van Dam concedes. Looking back on when the two met, Van Dam recalls, "I decided I could tame him. He was a diamond-in-the-rough, and my job was to polish him a little."
After Pausch earned his bachelor's degree in computer science in 1982 from Brown, Van Dam encouraged him to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. In addition to brains, "he had the gift of gab. He was such a good salesman that I told him he might as well be selling something worthwhile, like education," says Van Dam, who advised Pausch to apply to Carnegie Mellon, where most of his best students went. Pausch applied and was rejected. Finally humbled, he went to meet Nico Habermann, then-chair of CMU's computer-science department, to plead for admittance "with all the deference my young, arrogant self could muster," Pausch recalled in his memoir. He got in.
Pausch would not publicly reveal the story of his initial rejection by Carnegie Mellon until the very day he set foot on stage to deliver his last lecture there. "I should have been telling that story for years," he mused in his memoir, "because the moral is: If you want something bad enough, never give up."
BEGINNING A CAREER IN TEACHING
After finishing his doctorate in computer science in 1988, Pausch left Carnegie Mellon for the University of Virginia, where he would hold a teaching position for nearly a decade. He spent the last two years of his career at UVA on sabbatical at the Disney Corp., helping the company to develop virtual-reality entertainment. Pausch had dreamed of working for Disney ever since childhood, and he would serve as a consultant to the company his entire career. At one point, the company offered to hire him full-time, but teaching was too much of a lure.
"He lived for the students," explains close friend and fellow Carnegie Mellon professor Don Marinelli. Pausch returned to CMU in 1997 to teach computer science and human-computer interaction, and he quickly stood out in the classroom. "There was obvious fun in everything he did, and he had the ability to give a great demo," says Brown's Van Dam. Example? Every time Pausch taught a new class on user-interfaces, he would pound a VCR into bits with a sledgehammer. His point was unmistakable: VCRs were designed to frustrate users. His technology-design students would have to do better than those nearly forgotten devices.
Pausch became the first CMU professor to win the prestigious Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award. Eventually, his Building Virtual Worlds class, culminating in an annual showcase of student experiments with virtual-reality entertainment, became so popular that students had to wait for several years just to get a spot on the roster.
Carnegie Mellon senior Madeleine Pitsch, 21, of Virginia, a former student of Pausch's, describes him as a "really inspiring teacher who had faith in your abilities and would push you." His approach to motivating students was reminiscent of the leadership style of his boyhood hero, James T. Kirk, fictional captain of the starship Enterprise on "Star Trek." Just as Capt. Kirk frequently pushed his chief engineer to exceed his (and the ship's) limits, "If I told professor Pausch that I was struggling to do a project in one week, he'd tell me I could do it in three days," says Pitsch.
Even in the midst of cancer treatment -- in 2006 Pausch underwent a "Whipple procedure," during which Pittsburgh surgeon Dr. Herbert Zeh removed his gallbladder, part of his pancreas, part of his stomach and most of his small intestine -- he remained dedicated to his students. Pitsch was amazed when Pausch e-mailed her after receiving chemotherapy to schedule a meeting to discuss her work. Before he died, Pausch assigned her to the project he cared most about: the Alice computer program, named after the heroine in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
GO ASK ALICE
Pausch, who grew up attending a Presbyterian church in Maryland and belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh as an adult, did not broach the topic of religion in his book or speeches, but he did make one comment about the afterlife -- namely, that he would "live on in Alice." Alice, a project he first began at the University of Virginia in the early 1990s, is a tool to make computer programming more approachable to novices.
During a tour of the Alice laboratory at Carnegie Mellon, director Wanda Dann demonstrated how Alice's drag-and-drop interface allows users to create 3-D virtual environments -- from animal farms to ice-skating rinks to vast cities -- without having to master the elaborate programming syntax that "drives beginning students crazy." In other words, she says, "you don't have to write all the code before you can play."
While it's true, adds Alice research scientist Dennis Cosgrove, that advanced computer scientists still write code the old-fashioned way with precisely placed semicolons and quotation marks, Alice helps students to understand the basic concepts without that drudgery. "If they all quit on day one, that doesn't help," Cosgrove stresses. And quit they have. A 2004 study sponsored by the National Science Foundation found that 53 percent of computer-science students drop out of the major after the first course. That same study found that the dropout rate falls to just 12 percent if those students are trained on Pausch's Alice teaching program before taking their first college-level computer-science course. The study also showed that computer-science students who learn on Alice see their overall grade-point average within the major rise a whole letter grade compared with students who don't.
ANOTHER LEGACY: CMU'S ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY CENTER
While Pausch was proud of his work on Alice, he left another professional legacy in the form of the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), the unique master's-degree program he co-created at Carnegie Mellon in 1998 along with drama professor Don Marinelli.
Housed in a futuristic building on the South Oakland campus of the Pittsburgh Technology Center, the ETC operates with a mission to unite some of the best young minds from the disparate worlds of art and science -- from directors and composers to roboticists and engineers -- to create cutting-edge entertainment. "The key thing we teach students is how to work as a team, to be interdisciplinary, to understand the needs of the other side," explains Marinelli. At the ETC, "the actors and the geeks have to be in the same room from rehearsal until opening night. You throw them all together, apply pressure and diamonds result."
Those results were easy to see during a recent tour of the ETC's Pittsburgh campus. (There are three extension campuses -- in California, Japan and Australia -- with plans to add a campus in Korea.)
Students were hard at work designing a new active adventure game that uses the remote controls from the interactive Nintendo Wii game system and the dance mat from the dancing game Dance Dance Revolution.
Pausch stressed in his last lecture that "the best way to teach somebody something is to have them think they're learning something else" -- a "head-fake approach to learning." The ETC-created fitness-game platform is one of those head fakes -- a clever way to get young people moving and to combat rising childhood-obesity rates.
Indeed, adds Marinelli, part of the ETC's mission is to create entertainment that is both fun and socially responsible. Pausch, who was heavily influenced by his father's humanitarian work, including his founding of a nonprofit group to teach English to immigrant children in this country and construction of student housing in Thailand, urged students to think of the influence of their work on others. "Randy encouraged us to be forces for good. There are enough people out there making zombie extermination games," says 2007 ETC graduate Phil Light. Light, 27, who remained in Pittsburgh after graduation, is one of the founders of Electric Owl Studios, a locally based interactive-technology company that makes computer software designed for young children.
As co-founder and fellow ETC graduate Fred Gallart, 26, explains, while most software on the market offers goal-based games with win/lose scenarios, Electric Owl makes a program called K.I.C.K., which operates more like a collection of digital toys -- virtual coloring books, virtual pictures and search-and-find games among them. In other words, there's nothing to potentially frustrate kids and no negative feedback. Children's hospitals all over the country, including Pittsburgh's, have been installing the games.
Because of his success with Alice and the ETC, Pausch had earned a considerable reputation at his university and even in the larger world of academia. He lost a $20 bet with a friend that he wouldn't fill every seat in the lecture hall on Sept. 18, 2007, when he gave his last lecture.
In his hour-long talk to the capacity crowd, Pausch, looking casual in khaki pants and a Disney golf shirt, used photos, props and costumes to tell the audience how he had achieved most of his childhood dreams -- from flying weightless to working at Disney to writing an entry in the World Book Encyclopedia on virtual reality -- and offered advice on how they could, too.
He began with an apology: "If I'm not as depressed as you think I should be, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I'm dying and I'm having fun. And I'm going to keep having fun every day I have left because there's no other way to play it." Added Pausch: "Never underestimate the importance of having fun." After all, he said, "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." Some of his other advice included:
1. Be honest.
2. Be a team player.
3. Dream big.
4. Don't complain. Work harder.
5. Never give up.
6. Be a communitarian.
7. Learn to apologize.
8. Show gratitude.
9. Never lose your sense of childhood wonder.
10. Choose to be like cheerful Tigger not like
gloomy Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame.
"It's just common sense, it's not rocket-science, but he truly inspired people," says Michele Reiss, Ph.D., Pausch's psychotherapist. "Under the worst situation, you can laugh, love and live, he taught us."
Shortly after he gave the lecture, it was uploaded to the Internet, and Pausch became a worldwide celebrity. Time magazine named him among 100 of its "World's Most Influential People." President George W. Bush sent him a letter thanking him for his "unwavering commitment to our Nation's youth" and praising him for his "brave battle with cancer." Oprah Winfrey flew him to Chicago to appear on her television show. Pittsburgh City Council declared Nov. 19, 2007, "Randy Pausch Day" in Pittsburgh. A Randy Pausch fan club shot up on the social-networking site Facebook.com and soon drew thousands of members from here to Sydney, Australia.
One of those fans, Michael Halpin Jr., of Olympia, Wash., posted the following remembrance on the site's "wall," or public message board: "I have Mr. Pausch's photo taped to my wall so that every day when I wake up, I am reminded that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind towards doing. I saw his show on PBS and it really changed my life. I still have a journey ahead of me, but I now have inspiration that I didn't have before."
No one, says friend Steve Seabolt, an executive at video game-maker Electronic Arts, was more surprised by his sudden fame than Pausch himself. Friends ribbed him for his newfound status as "St. Randy of Pittsburgh," but all agree that Pausch never let fame go to his head. "The week he died, he talked to me about the privilege he had to be helpful to others," says Virginia Pausch, his mother.
By writing in his memoir about the benefits of his mental-health counseling sessions, sessions he attended for 18 months with his wife, Pausch "let others know that they deserve to get help," says Reiss. In those months, Pausch and his wife sought help "coping with the fear and stress associated with this amazing, out-of-the-blue sense of time pressure. They wanted to know how to help, support and love each other, and how to maintain some kind of normalcy for their children," Reiss explains. "He and Jai made the decision to share something very private so others would know that you could be as strong of mind as they were and need therapy."
Reiss says she now gets e-mail from people all over the country and world asking for help finding a therapist. Although Jai Pausch says through a family spokesman that her emotions are still too raw to allow her to give full-length interviews, she also says that her husband's decision to speak out about the benefits of counseling remains a key part of his legacy.
CHAMPIONING PANCREATIC-CANCER RESEARCH
Another part of Pausch's legacy will be the way he spread awareness about the need for pancreatic-cancer research, says Julie Fleshman, president and CEO of the nonprofit Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an advocacy group. Pausch traveled with Fleshman to Washington, D.C., on March 13, 2008, to testify before Congress about the need to increase federal funding for pancreatic-cancer research. "There have been no advancements in treatment since the 1930s," explains Fleshman, blaming the lack of progress, in part, on the lack of a patient-spokesperson for the disease. They simply die too quickly. Pausch himself was hospitalized just days before his trip, but Fleshman says that he told doctors, "‘You have to let me out. This is something I have to do.'"
His stand appeared to work. He helped introduce a plan to members of Congress, including members of the House Leadership; the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; and members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. That plan would create a new, targeted research program at the National Cancer Institute with a focus on pancreatic cancer. Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) introduced the plan as a new bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The result? "A huge, giant step forward in fighting this disease," Fleshman concludes. "We can move forward with a different momentum because of what he did. Randy would be so thrilled that all the work he did led [to this]."
After all these years of struggling to raise awareness, how did advocates for pancreatic-cancer research find a champion in Pausch? Why did Congress care? "Randy was an amazing individual," Fleshman answers. "You were drawn to him, wanted to listen to him, hear what he had to say. During his testimony, you could hear a pin drop."
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl concurs. "Randy Pausch touched so many people -- here in Pittsburgh and throughout the world -- with his courage, determination and his lessons of living life to the fullest and celebrating the moment."
Lance Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor, agrees, praising Pausch in an e-mail for "showing remarkable humor and graciousness while living with cancer" and acting as a role model for others fighting that same fight.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
But even Pausch wondered if the courage and optimism he displayed after his terminal-cancer diagnosis weren't simply part of a performance. After all, as he admitted in his memoir, he had become very aware that he was living life in front of an audience. "Maybe at times I forced myself to appear strong and upbeat. Many cancer patients feel obliged to put up a brave front. Was I doing that, too?"
Friend Steve Seabolt didn't think Pausch was acting, noting that he kept his wit and penchant for dark humor up until literally the very end of his life. When Pausch was first diagnosed with cancer, he had told Seabolt, "We have a choice. We can be really serious about this or go with dark humor." They both voted for the second approach. "Laughter is a good medicine, and it was a coping mechanism for the two of us," explains Seabolt. The night before he died, in the bedroom of his new home in Virginia, Pausch had asked Seabolt to help him review a detail of his life-insurance policy. Seabolt recalls Pausch's telling him: "Life insurance. Nothing like betting against yourself and winning!"
But Pausch received his own confirmation that his joie de vivre was real; it came in the form of an e-mail from Robbee Kosak, Carnegie Mellon's vice president of university advancement. One morning, well after his diagnosis with cancer, Kosak e-mailed him to tell him that she'd seen him driving home from work the night before. At first, she didn't recognize the man behind the wheel of the Volkswagen convertible, his head bobbing along to music as the warm, spring air whipped through his wavy, black hair. "Wow, this is the epitome of a person appreciating this day and this moment," she thought to herself. "Oh my God," she said to herself a minute later, as the convertible turned a corner. "It's Randy Pausch!"
Wrote Kosak in the e-mail: "You can never know how much that glimpse of you made my day, reminding me of what life is all about." In that unguarded moment, Pausch might have reminded Kosak of Alice -- not the computer program but the literary character, Pausch's muse, that inspired it.
On the last page of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice's grownup sister looks at her in an unguarded moment and is overcome with a similar sense of awe as she imagines how Alice would "keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child life, and the happy summer days."
Geoffrey W. Melada, a trial lawyer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh magazine, dedicates this story to the late Shirley Hirsh, his high school English teacher, and to all the teachers who inspire others to achieve their childhood dreams. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.