Randy Pausch: Professor famous for his 'last lecture'

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The Independent Online

Randy Pausch was never a particularly religious man, and when they diagnosed his final cancer, he joked that his only "death-bed conversion" would be to exchange his PC for a new Apple Mac. Yet the computer science professor realised an extraordinary ability to convert others, becoming what he called a "media-based inspirer" who helped millions appreciate the briefness and sanctity of life.

The source of Pausch's accidental fame was a "last lecture" delivered to 450 colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, on 18 September 2007, shortly after being told, at the age of 47, that a tumour in his liver had grown, multiplied, and spread to his spleen, leaving him just a few months to live.

In a remarkable 75-minute performance, Pausch described his life and career, and explained how he had attempted to realise half a dozen childhood dreams, which ranged from experiencing zero gravity to appearing in Star Trek. The speech moved many members of his audience to tears and would see him eulogised across the world.

A video of the talk, which had originally been shot for his three young children to watch when they were older, ended up being posted on the internet site YouTube. After it was "flagged" by the Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, who had travelled to Carnegie Mellon to listen to the talk, the video went viral, and was eventually watched by over six million people.

Pausch became an instant celebrity. At the end of September, he was invited on to the TV network ABC, and was made their personality of the week. Oprah Winfrey then followed suit. A book inspired by the lecture, co-authored by Zaslow, achieved an advance of $6.7m. It was later translated into 27 languages, and still tops the bestseller lists.

The secret of his speech's appeal was its simple optimism. Here was an ordinary guy, with an energetic demeanour, who had found himself in appalling circumstances, and resolved to make the best of it. "I'm dying, but I'm having fun," went one of his many humorous asides. "If I don't seem to be as depressed or as morose as I should be, then I'm sorry to disappoint you."

Pausch wore ill-fitting chinos, a black polo shirt, and a goofy haircut. He might have been on the brink of a slow and painful death, but appeared calm, measured, and most of all, happy. The lecture saw him perform press-ups, throw an American football, and sing "happy birthday" to his wife, who was sitting tearfully in the front row.

Randy Pausch was born in Baltimore, and spent most of his life in academia. After graduating with a degree in Computer Science from Brown University, he got a doctorate from Carnegie Mellon in 1988. After a spell at the University of Virginia, he returned to Carnegie in 1997 as Associate Professor.

Following his "last lecture," he went on to be named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2007. He was also invited to address the US Senate about the need for more funding for research on pancreatic cancer.

Randolf Frederick Pausch, computer scientist: born Baltimore, Maryland 12 October 1960; Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction and Design, Carnegie Mellon University 2000-2008; married 2000 Jai Glasgow (two sons, one daughter); died Chesapeake, Virginia 25 July 2008.