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Remembering Randy Pausch

To the day he died, CMU professor Randy Pausch (CS'88) was convinced that "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" wasn't his best lecture. He was much prouder of his lecture on time management.

Tens of millions of people would disagree.

In late 2007, as Pausch's "last lecture" spread around the world via email, social media and news broadcasts, tributes poured into his CMU office. By early 2008, Pausch reported receiving more than 6,000 emails from people who said his lecture had (in Pausch's words) inspired them to "stop feeling sorry for themselves."

Thousands of people also sent cards, letters and packages in the months before Pausch's death on July 25, 2008.

Cleah Schlueter, project coordinator for the Alice team, has carefully saved more than 500 of those letters and cards, which have never before been made public.

On Sept. 20, 2007, Pausch's 'Last Lecture' received national attention when CMU alumnus Jeffrey Zaslow wrote a column about it for the Wall Street Journal. The following day, Pausch was named ABC News' 'Person of the Week,' and mail began to pour into his office. Some cards were purchased, but many others were handmade. Appearances on 'Oprah' and other talk shows spread Pausch's message and fame. 'We must be having something of heaven, and you are a prime example.'  Most of the messages Pausch received boiled down to a simple 'thank you.' Some of those touched by Pausch's lecture, and his subsequent book written with Zaslow, took the time to share longer stories of their personal struggles. 'You truly inspired me' For many, Pausch seemed to be a surrogate for their own loved ones who had passed away --- having missed the chance to say goodbye to their own friends or family, they apparently found in Pausch someone to whom they could at last express their feelings of loss and regret. Heartfelt letters came in every format, from multiple-page typed manuscripts to scraps of paper. A few letter writers told Pausch how his message --- 'be a Tigger, not an Eeyore' --- had helped them overcome their own adversities. This letter writer refers to a line from Pausch's lecture. 'Brick walls are there for a reason,' he said. '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.' By the end of October 2007, the YouTube video of Pausch's lecture had been viewed more than 1 million times and had gone viral, inspiring people around the world. 'Blue skies before every jump' 'Thanks for what you did, and a big hug.' 'We hold you in our hearts and prayers' This teacher in Germany adapted Pausch's text for an graduation ceremony. 'To be honest, I crossed your story by accident ... inspiring Pausch's message resonated with prisoners as well. 'I feel like quite a jackass for having wasted so much time in addiction. I feel kind of unworthy writing a letter to someone like you that hasn't wasted much time.' Some people asked for advice, perhaps not realizing that Pausch's illness had sapped his strength, and that his final weeks were being spent in quiet solitude with his family. Pausch's fans struggled for some way to repay him for his inspiration, sending gifts such as CDs and books. Books and toys sent for the Pausches soon piled up in a Wean Hall office. At the family's request, they were donated to charities. Children often reached out with hand-drawn pictures or cards decorated artwork of the Disney characters that Pausch loved. From a stranger in Illinois came this bracelet --- a Mother's Day gift for Pausch's wife, Jai. A New York woman wrote a song for Pausch. 'My favorite pack of playing cards ... which has always brought good luck.' Gifts of a prop phaser and a model of the Starship Enterprise commemorate Pausch's cameo in 'Star Trek.' The film was released in 2009, a year after his death. A handmade quilt lists the names of Pausch, his wife and their three children. Though thoughtful, it was unclear why these red gloves were sent to Pausch As time went on, people moved by Pausch's illness reached out to help him find a cure. Some offered advice about conventional medicine. Many of those who wrote suggested nutritional or holistic remedies. An inmate in California: 'Eat what whales eat and live to be 150'   A Pausch admirer sent this pill organizer, along with a note suggesting that he might find it useful to manage the many medications he was taking to cope with the effects of cancer and chemotherapy. From Germany came this mysterious potion. One Pausch admirer sent a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although raised Presbyterian, Pausch attended a Unitarian church near the CMU campus, and preferred to keep his faith private. Hundreds of people told Pausch they were praying for him. Some went further, and attempted to convert him. 'I invite you to pay a visit to Dr. Jesus' The televangelist and founder of California's Crystal Cathedral sent a simple note of thanks. In classrooms around the world, teachers incorporated Pausch's message into their lessons. 'I just don't understand how you can be so calm' Students from an elementary school in Phoenix send these cards. From Arizona's Quail Run Elementary School 'Anyone can make their goals in life' 'Hope your dreams have been the best of dreams' 'Our world needs more people like you' Not just elementary school pupils, but students in colleges and universities have also explored the deeper meanings behind Pausch's lecture. Even since Pausch's death on July 25, 2008, letters have continued to arrive at Carnegie Mellon, many addressed to Pausch's wife, Jai, or his three children. From a man in Arkansas, sent in October 2008 July 2009 March 2012 March 2012 From students at Everett Community College in Washington Pausch's book continues to find new readers, some of whom are unaware of the swirl of publicity that engulfed his final months. The writer of this Jan. 2012 letter seems to be unaware of Pausch's death.

A Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design, Pausch was a larger-than-life presence whose sense of humor, lanky frame and animated style of discussion reminded some people of comedian Jim Carrey.

A graduate of Brown, Pausch earned his Ph.D. at CMU and taught at the University of Virginia before returning to Carnegie Mellon in 1997. He created and led development of Alice, a software package designed to teach young people the principles of computer programming.

An award-winning educator, author or co-author of six books and 70 research papers, and co-founder of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center, Pausch was well-known for his "Building Virtual Worlds" class in computer animation, whose end-of-semester student shows attracted hundreds of curious spectators.

In the summer of 2006, Pausch began experiencing unusual medical problems that caused him to see a doctor. Tests confirmed that he had pancreatic cancer. Radical surgery was performed to remove a tumor, his gallbladder, part of his pancreas and stomach, and several feet of his small intestine. But in August 2007, doctors gave Pausch terrible news; the cancer had returned, this time in his liver and spleen. It was inoperable. Chemotherapy would buy him, at best, some time.

One month later, on Sept. 18, 2007, Pausch was asked to present a lecture as part of CMU's "Journeys" series. It had been previously been called "the last lecture," a series in which faculty members would deliver what would be their "final lesson" if they knew they didn't have long to live. (The irrepressible Pausch quipped, "Damn, I finally nailed the venue and they renamed it.")

The audience that afternoon at CMU's McConomy Auditorium included Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow (DC'80), who had driven 300 miles, on a hunch, to hear Pausch's bravado performance. His article about the lecture helped spread the word. So did social media and email. By the end of October 2007, video of Pausch's lecture had been viewed more than 1 million times.

Zaslow and Pausch eventually adapted the lecture into a book that remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks. 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. Tragically, Zaslow died in a car accident Feb. 10, 2012 in Michigan. He was 53.

More about Randy's legacy:

Watch "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams":

Randy's website (archived):