As a teenager, Randy Pausch painted the walls of his bedroom with a rocket ship, the quadratic formula, chess pieces and other images befitting an earnest, nerdy, curious child of the 1970s.
That rocket ship -- and the freedom that his parents gave him to paint his bedroom walls -- became a symbol of creativity and possibility, a version of which adorned the cover of his best-selling book, "The Last Lecture."
This morning, the rocket ship will literally be cut from the walls of Mr. Pausch's childhood home in Columbia, Md., and transported for display at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a professor until he died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer at age 47. The inspirational lecture he gave to friends and colleagues toward the end of his life has been viewed by millions on the Internet and was turned into the book co-written by CMU alumnus Jeffrey Zaslow.
"There are so few people in the program now who knew Randy -- he passed away almost four years ago," said Mk Haley, associate executive producer of the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU co-founded by Mr. Pausch. "Having something physical to remind you there's a real man here, that will be helpful."
Mr. Pausch's sister, Tammy Pausch Mason, brainstormed ways to save her brother's artwork once her mother decided earlier this year to move near Ms. Mason in Virginia and sell her Maryland home.
Ms. Mason approached those who knew her brother well about buying the house, or removing entire walls of her brother's bedroom.
"I couldn't let it go," said Ms. Mason. "It meant too much to me personally and potentially too much to other people. I couldn't stomach it and started thinking outside the box."
Eventually, Ms. Haley came up with the idea of cutting out pieces of the wall. Because the new owner of the home plans to demolish it or do extensive renovations, he agreed to the unusual request.
Ms. Mason knows that some of the wall pieces may crack and that some might not be able to be removed at all. Regardless, she and other members of her family plan to "make a party of it."
They planned to camp out in the unfurnished house Tuesday night, with Mr. Pausch's 85-year-old mother sleeping on an air mattress.
CMU is sending James White, its ETC "designgineer," and Jon Underwood, technology consultant, to Mr. Pausch's childhood home to do the actual wall cutting. A contractor for the home's new owner will be on hand as well.
Carnegie Mellon will receive the rocket ship and possibly the quadratic formula. Mr. Pausch's widow, Jai Pausch, has asked Ms. Mason to pick three other pieces of art to give to his three children when they are older.
Ms. Mason also will take a few pieces for her own family -- her 5-year-old has laid claim to a painted hole labeled, "Beware of Killer Mouse."
Mr. Pausch devoted a short chapter in "The Last Lecture" to telling his parents that he wanted to paint "things that matter to me" and about their willingness to let him do so.
"Anybody out there who is a parent, if your kids want to paint their bedrooms, as a favor to me, let them do it," he wrote. "It'll be OK. Don't worry about resale value on the house."
He painted an elevator door with floors one through six, despite the fact that he lived in a ranch house.
He painted Snow White's mirror with the line, "Remember when I told you you were the fairest? I lied!"
The concept of painting the walls dovetails perfectly with the philosophy of the Entertainment Technology Center, said Ms. Haley, who had known Mr. Pausch since 1995 when the two worked together at Disney Imagineering.
At the ETC, which hosts a master's program at CMU that brings computer scientists and engineers together with artists to study entertainment technology, the walls are painted bright colors -- something Ms. Haley sees as a symbol of the center's creative freedom.
In 2009, CMU also dedicated the 230-foot-long Randy Pausch Memorial Bridge. The bridge will feature student-designed light shows on its 7,000 programmable LED lights starting Thursday night.
The rocket ship will likely be displayed outside the Randy Pausch Interdisciplinary Classroom at the ETC.
"In a world of high tech computers and lasers and business, there's something about a piece of wall, something so analog that's nice," said Ms. Haley. "And it's a rocket ship. Rocket ships are nothing but potential and hope and off into the who-knows-where."
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.