Randy Pausch, a computer-science professor who became internationally known for his inspiring “Last Lecture,” passed away in Chesapeake, Virginia, Friday after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 47.
In an obituary issued by Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where Pausch was a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design, University President Jared L. Cohon said Pausch has had “an enormous and lasting impact” on the university community.
“He was a brilliant researcher and gifted teacher,” Cohon said. “Carnegie Mellon – and the world – are better places for having had Randy Pausch in them.”
Gabriel Robins, a computer-science professor at the University of Virginia and Pausch’s former colleague, called Pausch “a force of nature” in the obituary, and said it was no accident that people of all ages, cultures and religions flocked to him.
“He had a very visceral, fundamental resonance to the core of humanity,” he said. “I thought of him as a genius of many things – not just science and research, but marketing, branding, selling, convincing, leading and showing by example.”
Professionally, Pausch is known for developing Alice, a computer programming environment for children. Alice enables novice computer users to create 3-D computer animations using a drag-and-drop interface.
But he will perhaps be best remembered for a surprisingly humorous and deeply moving lecture titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” that he gave to students at Carnegie Mellon on Sept. 18, 2007. A Wall Street Journal reporter in attendance wrote about the lecture, which sparked global media attention and widespread distribution of a video of the lecture on YouTube.
Pausch called the talk “The Last Lecture” because he had recently been told by doctors he had only months to live due to pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. He was first diagnosed with the terminal illness in 2006.
The speech gave Pausch celebrity in his last days. He survived for nearly a year after the lecture and was able to spread the teachings of his lecture through numerous public appearances during that time.
Pausch recited parts of the The Last Lecture on popular U.S. television shows in the U.S., including “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Good Morning America.” ABC News, which featured Pausch, his wife Jai and their three children in a primetime special, declared him one of three “Persons of the Year” in 2007. A book based on the lecture and co-written by Pausch topped best-seller lists in The New York Times, USA Today and Publisher’s Weekly.
In The Last Lecture, Pausch provided simple guidance to help people live valuable lives and achieve their childhood dreams based on lessons he said he learned throughout his life. He emphasized that rather than seek material wealth, people should seek meaningful interactions with other people, and treat the people they encounter in their lives with the compassion and respect that come with forming lasting and true relationships.
The lecture also included simple advice for overcoming adversity and criticism people face every day to achieve important life goals, and guidance for making genuine apologies and amends to loved ones when necessary.
Pausch earned an undergraduate degree in computer science at Brown University in 1982 and a Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon in 1988.
Before joining the Carnegie Mellon faculty in 1997, he served on the computer science faculty at the University of Virginia from 1988 to 1997 and spent a 1995 sabbatical working at Walt Disney Imagineering’s Virtual Reality Studio. He mentioned his work at Disney in his Last Lecture as an example of how he achieved a childhood dream to be a Disney Imagineer.
Pausch was a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and received ACM’s Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award and the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education from the ACM’s Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education. He authored or co-authored five books and more than 60 reviewed journal and conference articles.