The wind creates a dull whooshing sound in Randy Pausch’s headset as he cycles through a neighborhood near his Virginia home.
Tell me what you see, Randy, I say on the other end of the line.
“It’s flat-out suburbia. It’s cul-de-sac land,” he says, his breathing deep but not labored, with the steady rhythm of an athlete getting his normal workout. “It’s very different than Pittsburgh, where it’s all hilly. … Around here, I can’t find a hill.”
Pittsburgh is the home of Carnegie Mellon University, where Pausch, 47, carved out a reputation for pioneering work in virtual reality and computerized learning programs. It’s also where he delivered a lecture in September that catapulted him to celebrity for a very different reason.
The talk was part of the “Last Lecture” series—professors sharing thoughts as if it were their final opportunity. Pausch made it all too real by showing CT scans of cancerous tumors that had metastasized from his pancreas to his liver. In August, doctors had told him he had three to six months of good health left. The lecture created a sensation—more than six million hits on Web videos of his talk, appearances on Oprah and elsewhere, newspaper and magazine articles galore, a book deal.
How do you explain the attention?
“It was completely unexpected,” says Pausch, who has three children, all preschoolers. “I think that it’s one of those classic things where if you had tried to get this much publicity, you couldn’t have.”
The “last lecture” turned out not to be his last lecture after all. In November, Pausch talked about time management at UVA, where he taught computer science from 1988 to 1997.
Pausch has been a time-management freak for years, but terminal cancer puts a new face on the watch. The headset in his bike helmet, for example, helps him multitask.
I, like many, have been drawn to Pausch because of his exuberance, courage, pragmatism and buoyant humor. I am drawn also because my mother died of pancreatic cancer, just about when Pausch was initially diagnosed a year and a half ago.
“So you know what an ugly disease this is,” Pausch says to me in the headset.
Still, his situation hasn’t put a new face on his outlook.
“Everybody has this sort of romanticized notion of what happens when you find out you’re going to die. You know, that’s just fascinating to me because what’s going on is, I’m living my life and there’s not this existential epiphanous ‘Everything has changed.’ I have to use my time very, very wisely. I have to accomplish a whole bunch of things in the time I have left, and I have to try to have as much fun as I can.”
Those values, priorities and motivations reflect the Pausch that Gabriel Robins has known for 15 years. Robins, a computer science professor at UVA, came under Pausch’s wing when Robins joined UVA’s faculty in 1992. The teaching fellowship program required him to officially declare a mentor—a no-brainer.
“He was not only my unofficial mentor, which he already was, but he became my official mentor,” Robins says.
“He’s not changed, really, over the last few months, in becoming a celebrity,” Robins adds. “He’s pretty much been the same throughout the time I’ve known him, and that’s what most people don’t know about him.”
Robins recalls that Pausch always kept a photo of Jackie Robinson in his office. Robinson, the player who broke the race barrier in major league baseball, took the lumps and epithets with grace, worked hard and focused on the important stuff.
“That philosophy of don’t whine, work harder, become the best in the world at what you do and success will follow—Randy embodies that, even now,” Robins says. “Instead of crawling off into a corner somewhere or getting depressed, he’s leveraged his situation into the ultimate teaching tool.”
What have you tried to teach?
“Use your time well,” Pausch says. “Live with integrity. And find a passion and pursue it. None of this is particularly groundbreaking or insightful.”
What would you like to tell people who will be reading this article?
There’s a pause, and the whoosh seems to slow. “I am the ultimate pragmatist. Everybody says, ‘Oh my God, he’s got these three little kids.’ Right? Well, here’s a good one. A lot of people out there can identify with that; they have little kids. Are you carrying enough life insurance? … It’s probably the single most important thing that you can do if you’re in my situation is to have enough life insurance.”
How are you feeling now (Dec. 13)?
“I’m holding up OK. I don’t have the stamina I’d like to have. But what I tell people is that in any room full of Americans, I’m probably in the top 25 percent by how fast you can run the 50-yard dash. That says more about Americans than it does about me,” Pausch says and laughs.
We talk a little more, but soon it’s time for Pausch to move on to another phone call. We wish each other well, and with a click, the whooshing and the heavy—but happy—breathing ends.