CMU prof with cancer continues to inspire

Randy Pausch making final national appearance on 'Oprah'

When Randy Pausch found out he had terminal cancer and decided to Webcast his final lecture at Carnegie Mellon University last month, he thought he would be leaving a nice legacy for his children and some of his friends.

He never expected to become a worldwide icon.

In the weeks since his Sept. 18 lecture, which focused on his gratitude for achieving his childhood dreams and his advice on how to live a fulfilling life, more than 1.2 million people have viewed the video of the address.

Following initial publicity in Pittsburgh newspapers and the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Pausch made appearances on "Good Morning America," "CBS Evening News" and "ABC World News."

And today, he will cap off his national media exposure with an appearance on "Oprah," which will air at 4 p.m. on WTAE TV.

The response to his talk and the interviews has flowed in from all corners of the globe, and Dr. Pausch has personally received more than 5,000 e-mails.

"It's been extremely humbling and flattering," he said in an e-mail interview Saturday. "I'm completely taken aback at the response and the popularity of this. I actually lost a $20 bet that I wouldn't even fill McConomy Auditorium" for the live lecture on the Carnegie Mellon campus.

When he made that appearance, he said doctors had given him another two to five months to live with an aggressive recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he had been fighting for more than a year.

When a CBS reporter asked him if he'd be around for Christmas, Dr. Pausch said, "It's 50-50." When asked if he'd be here for Father's Day next year, the computer science professor said: "I wouldn't buy me anything."

No one looking at Randy Pausch last month would have believed he was in such dire straits. His health seemed vibrant, he had a full head of hair and he delighted his audience by doing several pushups.

He is taking palliative chemotherapy, and a month later, still feels pretty good, he wrote.

"In terms of energy and pain, I'm clearly in worse shape than I was before I got cancer," he said, "But I'm thoroughly enjoying my life. I'm riding my bike an hour each morning, and I'll be joining a gym so I can lift weights.

"The tumors are not yet large enough to cause pain, and the chemo side effects are not too bad; mostly fatigue and one day a week (shortly after the injection), I have flu-like symptoms for about 24 hours -- a small price to pay for walking around."

He remains a little mystified at the immense response his lecture has generated.

When he reflected on it, he decided that "context is everything."

"If I'd given that lecture two years ago, when I was healthy, I suspect it wouldn't have become so widely viewed.

"I honestly don't know why it struck a chord. I think that there's an element of 'this guy is being completely authentic, since he has no reason not to be' and I sort of found a way to give what I would call 'old school' advice in a way that didn't come off as 'old school.' Plus, I think every parent can relate to the challenge of 'What would you want to tell your children if you knew you were going to die?'"

In the scores of e-mails sent to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after its story on his lecture, many people referred to the poignancy created by Dr. Pausch's young family -- his wife Jai, and his children, Dylan, 5, Logan, who turned 3 this month, and Chloe, 1.

The "old school" advice that he gave included lessons on gratitude, humility and looking for the best in people.

He praised his late father for teaching him how to look for adventure in life and how to help people through work, like a school that Dr. Pausch's parents helped to support in Thailand.

His mother gave him support, too, but also a sense of humility.

When he complained as a student about how hard a particular test was, his mom patted his hand, and said "We know how you feel, honey, and remember, when your father was your age, he was fighting the Germans."

He also said that after he got his Ph.D., his mother used to introduce him by saying, "This is my son; he's a doctor, but not the kind that helps people."

He lauded his mentors, particular Brown University computer science professor Andries van Dam.

Dr. van Dam not only encouraged Dr. Pausch to go into computer science teaching because he had gifts as a salesman and "you might as well be selling something worthwhile like education," but told him at another point that he was too full of himself.

"Randy, it's such a shame that people perceive you as so arrogant," Dr. van Dam said, "because it's going to limit what you're going to be able to accomplish in life."

And when he got his doctorate and thought that the Disney Co. would hire him immediately to become an imagineer, and it didn't, he learned that obstacles could have value, too.

"The brick walls are there for a reason," he told his audience. "The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something."

Before his lecture, Dr. Pausch had said that he wanted to focus his final weeks on his wife and family. Has the media onslaught prevented that?

Not really, he says.

"My wife and I sat down and formulated a strategy, where we said 'no' to most media requests and did only a few, and we kept the media away from my wife and kids.

"It's taken very little time; people have been quite kind, and the interviews were done at my convenience, often while our kids were napping.

"And I feel very good about being able to draw attention to Carnegie Mellon, after all it has done for me over the years."

Today's Oprah appearance will be his last major media event, he wrote, except for some public service announcements on behalf of seeking a cure for pancreatic cancer.

"I'm done being in front of cameras," he wrote, "unless, of course, Jon Stewart calls, because I couldn't say no to the smartest guy on TV."

Mark Roth can be reached at or at 412-263-1130 First Published October 22, 2007 4:15 AM


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