CMU professor gives his last lesson on life

"If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you."


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Randy Pausch set the tone early on yesterday at his farewell lecture at Carnegie Mellon University.

"If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you," said Dr. Pausch, a 46-year-old computer science professor who has incurable pancreatic cancer.

It's not that he's in denial about the fact that he only has months to live, he told the 400 listeners packed into McConomy Auditorium on the campus, and the hundreds more listening to a live Web cast.

It's more that "I am in phenomenally good health right now; it's the greatest cognitive dissonance you will ever see -- the fact is, I'm in better shape than most of you," he said.

And then, to the appreciative laughs and applause of his audience, Dr. Pausch dropped to the stage floor and did a set of pushups.

"So anyone who wants to cry or pity me can come down here and do a few of those, and then you may pity me," he said.

"What we're not going to talk about today," he continued, "is cancer, because I've spent a lot of time talking about that ... and we're not going to talk about things that are even more important, like my wife and [three preschool] kids, because I'm good, but I'm not good enough to talk about that without tearing up."

What he was there to discuss was how to fulfill your childhood dreams, and the lessons he had learned on his life's journey.

When he was a boy, Dr. Pausch said, he had a concrete set of dreams: He wanted to experience the weightlessness of zero gravity; he wanted to play football in the NFL; he wanted to write an article for the World Book Encyclopedia ("You can tell the nerds early on," he joked); he wanted to be Captain Kirk from "Star Trek"; and he wanted to work for the Disney Co.

In the end, he got to tackle all of them, he said -- even if his football accomplishments fell somewhere short of the NFL.

In his 10 years at Carnegie Mellon, Dr. Pausch helped found the Entertainment Technology Center, which one video game executive yesterday called the premier institution in the world for training students in video game and other interactive technology.

He also established an annual virtual reality contest that has become a campuswide sensation, and helped start the Alice program, an animation-based curriculum for teaching high school and college students how to have fun while learning computer programming.

It was the virtual reality work, in which participants wear a headset that puts them in an artificial digital environment, that earned him and his Carnegie Mellon students a chance to go on the U.S. Air Force plane known as the "vomit comet," which creates moments of weightlessness, and which the students promised to model with VR technology.

And even though his football career ended in high school, he said, he probably learned more from that experience than all the other childhood goals he did achieve.

Among other things, he learned the value of the coach yelling at him for his mistakes, because an assistant coach told him after one particularly brutal practice: "When you're screwing up and nobody's saying anything to you anymore, that means they've given up on you."

While he didn't get to be Captain Kirk, actor William Shatner, who played Kirk, did visit him at Carnegie Mellon in recent years.

"It's cool to meet your boyhood idol," Dr. Pausch said. "It's even cooler when he comes to you to see what you're doing in your lab."

And he got the chance to write the World Book's article on virtual reality.

Known for his flamboyance and showmanship as a teacher and mentor, Dr. Pausch talked Disney officials into letting him work on sabbatical at the company, helping design such virtual reality rides as the Magic Carpet and Pirates of the Caribbean.

More recently, he got the chance to intern with Electronic Arts, the video game company, and that relationship prompted the firm to give Carnegie Mellon the right to use its famous Sims animated characters as part of the Alice curriculum.

Near the end of his talk yesterday, Dr. Pausch surprised his wife, Jai, with a cake for her birthday on Monday, and persuaded the audience to sing for her. She managed to choke back her tears long enough to blow out the single candle on top.

To honor his life and career, Electronic Arts announced it was setting up a scholarship fund for deserving female computer science majors at Carnegie Mellon.

And the school itself said it would put his name on the footbridge that will connect the new Gates Computer Sciences Building and the Purnell Center for the Arts, symbolizing the way he linked those disciplines.

Dr. Pausch's ordeal began a year ago, when he began to feel bloated and his bowel movements changed, he said in an e-mail interview. When doctors did a CT scan to see if he had gallstones, they spotted a tumor.

"I got the news from my GP," he wrote, "who said 'There's a mass on your pancreas, and it's not fair.'

"As I later told him, it's unfortunate, and it's unlucky, but it's not unfair. As I always tell my 5-year-old, it's not 'unfair' when you don't get what you want. We all run the risk of getting hit by the cancer dart."

In a Web-based diary he kept of his treatment, Dr. Pausch concentrated on trying to improve his survival odds. He knew it would be an uphill battle. Despite improvements in treatment, the overall five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 5 percent. Even the one-year rate is only 26 percent.

The first step was surgery, which took place exactly one year ago today at UPMC Shadyside. Surgeons took out his gall bladder, a third of his pancreas, part of his stomach and several feet of small intestine.

As he recovered, Dr. Pausch discovered that M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston was carrying out an experimental, highly toxic radiation and chemotherapy regimen for pancreatic cancer that might increase his five-year survival odds to almost 45 percent.

The treatments began in November and didn't end until the following May. The low point, he wrote, was on Christmas Day of last year: "My wife and children were in Norfolk, and I was in Houston getting poison put in my veins. I was never depressed, but that was the day I was really squeezing the lemons hard to get lemonade."

But later, less than a week after finishing chemotherapy and radiation, Dr. Pausch was playing flag football with his recreational league team again.

"First play of the game, I caught a 25-yard pass over the middle," he said in his diary. "Granted, I was sucking wind the whole game, but damn it's good to be back on the field."

In mid-summer, after tests initially showed he was clear of cancer, he added two rounds of treatment with an experimental cancer vaccine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

And then, just as he was finally feeling healthy again late last month, Dr. Pausch sent out this message to his diary readers:

"A recent CT scan showed that there are 10 tumors in my liver, and my spleen is also peppered with small tumors. The doctors say that it is one of the most aggressive recurrences they have ever seen."

He and Jai moved their family to Chesapeake, Va., so she would be near her relatives. They made initial plans for hospice care, and Dr. Pausch began palliative chemotherapy to give him some extra time.

"I find that I am completely positive," he wrote. "The only times I cry are when I think about the kids -- and it's not so much the 'Gee, I'll miss seeing their first bicycle ride' type of stuff as it is a sense of unfulfilled duty -- that I will not be there to help raise them, and that I have left a very heavy burden for my wife."

He is concentrating now on creating videos for his children. With his oldest son, 5-year-old Dylan, Dr. Pausch went on a recent trip to Disney World and to swim with dolphins, thinking Dylan may be the only child who will have strong direct memories of him.

His wife and children, he said, "mean everything to me. They give a purpose to life and a depth of joy that no job [and I've had some of the most awesome jobs in the world] can begin to provide.

"I hope my wife is able to remarry down the line. And I hope they will remember me as a man who loved them, and did everything he could for them."


Mark Roth can be reached at mroth@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-1130. First Published September 19, 2007 4:00 AM


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