Prof. Randy Pausch (1960-2008) I
Bill Long 7/25/08
Lessons To Live By
In the last month we have seen the following death notices (note the dates): Tim Russert, 1950-2008; Tony Snow, 1955-2008; and, today, Prof. Randy Pausch of Carnegie-Mellon University, who became an Internet sensation after his Sept. 2007 "Last Lecture" a month after being given a "death-sentence" because of pancreatic cancer, 1960-2008. I wonder which accomplished young person, born in 1965, will die in the next few weeks...
Like Mitch Albom, whose Tuesdays with Morrie created a cultural sensation in the late 1990s when he wrote about his visits and conversations with his former professor at Brandeis University while the latter was dying of cancer, so Randy Pausch has given to the world a gift affirming life while he was facing the last months of his battle against the certain killer--pancreatic cancer. Albom's book came out before YouTube was even a glint in its inventor's eye; Pausch's presence now is with us through hundreds of excerpted interviews or testimony, and especially his 75-minute "Last Lecture" of last Sept. Wall Street Journal writer Jeffrey Zaslow has now put out a book "The Last Lecture," dictated to him by Pausch, which will also preserve not simply his memory but also his precious thoughts and even-more-valuable spirit. Pausch leaves his wife of only eight years (Jai), and three young children, Dylan, Logan and Chloe.
It is a curious but true phenomenon in human existence that we become hyper-aware of words or actions performed by people who are just about to exit the stage. When I served, for example, on the Board of Directors of a community college in the late 1980s, there was far more press coverage of my departure from the board than anything I ever did on the board. Though Randy Pausch was renowned in his field as an innovator in computer-human interaction and in making computer graphics accessible to people, he really wasn't "known" until his fate, as it were, was sealed by the cancer. Then, as with many people who face death at a much-too-young age, he rose in our consciousness and experience as one who teaches us something about life, even as he is about to leave life behind.
I never knew Randy Pausch, but I knew very well the atmosphere that produced some of his skills. He, too, was a graduate of Brown University, though he graduated in 1982 and I in 1974. He was a computer science major, which didn't exist when I was a student there in the early 1970s, but it was being cooked up at the time by the enfant terrible of the faculty, Prof. Andreis van Dam. My interest in those days was in "pure math;" most of my friends were studying "applied math" (called "applemath" for short), which would mature into the computer science department shortly after I left. Though van Dam was only in his early 30s at the time, he already was the talk of the campus, and especially of my circle of math-oriented friends. Something he was doing with computers, with graphics, with languages, and the way he was doing it in such a demanding, perfectionistic but compassionate fashion, seemed to attract some of the best minds on campus. His lengthy shadow fell over the life of Randy Pausch, and Pausch carried that influence with him through his professional career.
Sayings To Live By
What really caught the nation's attention after Randy received his "death sentence" in August 2007, however, was the grace, wisdom and humor that accompanied him both in his "Last Lecture" and the series of interviews he conducted well into 2008. Indeed, one of his more moving segments is a 6 minute "charge to the graduates" of Carnegie Mellon University, delivered just two months ago. Whereas he could do pushups (and did some) in his Sept. 2007 lecture, by May 2008 he knew that this possibility would forever be denied him. But as his days grew fewer his insights about life and living well seemed to multiply. I will close this essay with one of them, and then dedicate the next essay to another seven.
1. Don't Worry About the Resale Value of the House. This was his advice to parents today based on his experience as a child. His parents allowed him to write, yes write, mathematical formulas that fascinated him on the wallpaper of his room. So fascinated was he with the world opened by mathematical symbols that he simply couldn't confine them to paper. Rather than bursting into his room, chastising him and making him spend the afternoon scrubbing walls, his parents did nothing. Randy never forgot that. He realized through that one action that his parents were so committed to his discovery of the sources of his creativity that they even would be willing to "suffer" a decline in the "resale value" of the home to encourage their son.
With that as our first lesson, we are prepared for another seven.