Five years ago, as Randy Pausch's "last lecture" spread around the world via email, social media and news broadcasts, tributes poured into his office at CMU. By early 2008, Pausch, a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design, reported receiving more than 6,000 emails from people who said his lecture had (in his words) inspired them to "stop feeling sorry for themselves."
Thousands of people also sent cards, letters and packages to Pausch (CS'88) in the months before his death from pancreatic cancer on July 25, 2008. They came from at least 40 U.S. states, five Canadian provinces, and every continent except Antarctica. Some people weren't sure how to spell his name--letters arrived at CMU addressed to Randy "Rausch" or "Pouch" or "Lausch."
Many suggested can't-fail miracle cures for Pausch's terminal illness, ranging from "Essaic tea" to high-frequency radio waves. A prison inmate in California, who described himself as chairman of the "Christ for President" committee, told Pausch to consume plankton. "Eat what whales eat and live forever," he promised. Others tried to convert Pausch to their religion and sent texts or tracts. A lady in Gilbert, S.C., was begging "on my knees" for Pausch to call her church's pastor.
A few letters were just inappropriate. Some, perhaps not understanding the gravity of Pausch's illness, asked for his help launching businesses. A lady from Gettysburg, Pa., criticized Pausch because she'd seen him show photos of his oldest children, Logan and Dylan, but not his youngest, Chloe, "and it just broke my heart," she said. (For the record, the lady was wrong.)
But those were a minority. Cleah Schlueter, project coordinator for the Alice team, has carefully saved more than 500 of those letters and cards. In some cases, people seemed to be writing to Pausch to express emotions about loved ones who had died unexpectedly. They hadn't been able to tell their loved ones they loved them, so they were using Pausch as a surrogate. In other cases, people were writing to thank Pausch for sharing his story. People in Celebration, Florida, and Lancaster, Pa., offered the Pausches free living space. The owner of a chicken restaurant in Virginia sent the Pausches 10 gift certificates for meals. Books, toys, jewelry and blankets were sent for the Pausch children. (Practically all of the gifts were donated to Pittsburgh-area charities.)
Most were simply moved by Pausch's courage and his message, which was turned into the best-selling book, The Last Lecture, with help from Jeffrey Zaslow (DC'80). "Your book has given me new insight, and I thank you for that," said a woman in Wappinger Hills, N.Y., whose son was struggling with mental illness. "Your love story does my heart good," said a man in Garland, Texas, who had seen Pausch and his wife, Jai, on television.
Students were especially moved by Pausch's message. More than one wrote to Pausch that they planned to pursue computer science careers after watching his "last lecture" online. A 12th grader in Los Altos, Calif., whose best friend was dying from cancer wrote that she looked to the Pausches for inspiration whenever it seemed too difficult to carry on. In Hsinchu, Taiwan, language students at the National Experimental High School watched Pausch's "last lecture" and his time management lecture and then wrote essays about them, in English and Mandarin, which they bound into a book and sent to him. "You will always be here in my heart, and please, never give up," an eighth-grader named Demi wrote.
Pausch read many of the letters, and even answered some of them, until his worsening illness prevented him from continuing, Schlueter says. The Last Lecture remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks. (Tragically, Pausch's collaborator, Zaslow, died in a car accident Feb. 10, 2012 in Michigan. He was 53.) As of September 2012, the lecture itself has been viewed 15 million times on YouTube, and downloaded by millions of others from iTunes and other file-sharing sites.
To view some of the never-before-seen letters to Randy Pausch, visit
--Jason Togyer (DC'96)
Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y [atsymbol] cs.cmu.edu