By Brent Green who blogs at Boomers
The sad news finally arrived in July 2008. Millions had been watching and waiting. Professor Randy Pausch succumbed to the ravages of pancreatic cancer after a noble fight and a noteworthy battle to make the world aware of the disease that killed him.
As he wisely observed, pancreatic cancer does not have a celebrity spokesperson because its victims do not live long enough. So, during the final ten months of his life in 2007 and 2008, he had become an accidental national celebrity for an engaging "last lecture" and as an intrepid crusader to fight this disease, even though his demise was inevitable.
Dr. Pausch finished his career as Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction and Design at Carnegie Mellon University. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August 2006, and he undertook aggressive chemotherapies and radiation treatments, but a year later his cancer had metastasized to his liver and spleen.
According to his doctors then, he had merely three to six months of functional health remaining.
Carnegie Mellon, as well as some other universities, has a tradition called “The Last Lecture.” The context is simple but inspiring: What if you have but one last chance to share your experiences and wisdom with others in the form of a lecture? What enduring values, lessons and ideas would you communicate if this is your final chance?
Professor Pausch, who I will refer to as Randy, gave his last lecture in September 2007, but of course, it was not a hypothetical lecture framework in his case. It was reality; he was dying.
But the lecture recorded that day is not about dying; it is about achieving childhood dreams. Randy presented his lecture with enthusiasm, humor, humility, and clarity.
A video recording of this lecture ended up on YouTube, and millions have watched it (approaching 19 million as of this writing). Randy appeared on Oprah's daytime television show and gave a condensed version of the lecture. Jeffrey Zaslow, a journalist with The Wall Street Journal, who had attended the live lecture, worked with Randy to write and publish a small book of wisdom and motivational encouragement entitled, The Last Lecture.
The book topped bestseller lists for weeks following its release in April 2008.
Defying the odds against him, Randy nevertheless lived long enough to see his lecture become a worldwide phenomenon, to watch his book soar to heights of publishing success, to appear on ABC network in an hour-long special with Diane Sawyer, to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show with eleven precious minutes to communicate his powerful messages, to testify before Congress about the need for research into preventing and curing this horrific disease, to fulfill one of his dreams through a cameo acting role in J. J. Abrams’ 2009 cinematic release of Star Trek, to give an address in May 2008 for the Carnegie Mellon graduating class, and, finally, to keep his growing list of admirers informed about his journey through a personal website and blog.
Randy wasn’t just a dedicated professor, a father of three small children, a husband very much in love with his wife, Jai, and a valiant crusader for those afflicted by fatal diseases. At 47 in 2007, he was also a young Boomer man who gave members of his generational cohort a glimpse of how an optimistic generation may tackle the final challenges of mortality and eventual dying.
Through his brave journey, he demonstrated the many ways that this next generation of aging mortals will confront the inevitable: by communicating new narratives about the value of human life, by showing how one’s final months can be dedicated to sharing timeless wisdom with children and young people, and by not going quietly into that dark night.
Randy spent his last days under hospice care, a charitable organization that gives the truest context for reconciliation, remembrance, communication, acceptance, and dignity.
When pondering how the Baby Boomer generation will change dying in the most constructive ways, I realized that those Boomers who address the challenges of a slow dying process would likely choose to die the way they’ve lived: idealistically, intensely and intently focused on creating a legacy for those who survive.
Some will follow in Randy’s footsteps. They will give new meaning to the end of our mortal journeys, leaving behind a wiser nation.
Maybe they will help our fragile species finally understand and accept that human life is precious and each person, given the proper context, can contribute meaningfully to our collective journey, even during the final days of life.
[RONNI HERE: Here is Randy Pausch's Final Lecture. It has received close to 20 million views and that's on only one of the posted videos. Others of the same lecture have been collecting viewers too.
The lecture runs one hour and 16 minutes and it's worth your time. Here it is:]
EDITORIAL NOTE: You are a prolific bunch of writers and there is now a backlog of reader stories to carry us almost to summer. So for awhile, I am not accepting new stories until we work through some of the ones already on the list.