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Inspiring computer professor Randy Pausch dies

Carnegie Mellon professor who inspired millions with his "last lecture" after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer died Friday at age 47.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor who inspired millions through his "last lecture", died at his home in Virginia on Friday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 47.

Randy Pausch

Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2006. And his popular "last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon in September 2007 became an Internet sensation, viewed by millions throughout the world. The lecture was part of an ongoing series at many universities that asked professors to think deeply about important life lessons.

In his lecture titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," Pausch humorously recounted his efforts to achieve his childhood dreams, such as becoming a professional football player, experiencing zero gravity, and working with the Walt Disney Company's Imagineering department to develop virtual reality rides for the amusement park.

He clicked through photos of himself as a boy, one of which showed him at the beach in my hometown of Rehoboth Beach, Del. in 1965. He also shared pictures of his own PET scans depicting several large tumors devouring his organs. And there were pictures of past students, co-workers, and bosses who played major roles in his life.

Throughout the talk he shared insights about the power of helping others and always going after your dreams even when you're faced with obstacles. A graduate of Brown University and Carnegie Mellon's computer science Ph.D. program, he confessed that he had not originally been admitted to either school. But unwilling to accept these roadblocks, he managed to get in anyway.

Pausch went on to become an award-winning professor and helped pioneer virtual reality research. He was a key member of Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center, a master's degree program that brings artists and engineers together. He also helped create Alice, an interactive program that helps teach young people computer programming.

With the help of Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Zaslow, Pausch turned his words of wisdom into a best-selling book, which was published this spring.

Pausch is survived by his wife, Jai, and three young children: Chloe, Dylan and Logan.

I first heard about Randy Pausch last year when my older sister forwarded me The Wall Street Journal column written by Zaslow, who had attended Pausch's last lecture. We had lost our mother to pancreatic cancer almost exactly five years earlier, so Pausch's story hit particularly close to home for me and my sisters. As I read about Pausch's lecture, my heart immediately went out to him and his young family as I envisioned the struggle they faced.

Unlike my mother's battle with pancreatic cancer, Pausch's journey lasted nearly two years. This is incredible given the fact that only 20 percent of all people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer make it through the first year, according to the American Cancer Society. And only about 4 percent live five years post-diagnosis. My mother, who was diagnosed a week before my younger sister's college graduation in May 2002, died about three and a half months after her diagnosis.

While no one would ever doubt my mother's own passion for life, she was definitely in a different phase of her life than Randy Pausch. And thus, she decided to forgo palliative chemotherapy and let her illness take its natural course. She had beaten breast cancer nearly 15 years earlier at the age of 45 and was thankful to fulfill her greatest wish of seeing her youngest child graduate from college. (I joked with her when she was given her terminal diagnosis that she should have aimed for a higher goal, such as the marriage of her middle daughter. I'm 35 and still single.)

But Pausch, whose oldest child is only 6-years-old now, clearly had strong incentives to endure recovery from the painful surgery to remove tumors from the pancreas and grueling months of chemotherapy.

Pausch playing with his three young children. Randy Pausch

I am glad for Pausch and his family that they were given as much time as possible. But I am still saddened at the loss of such an incredible and inspiring man. And I am saddened even more that his children will grow up without him in their lives.

I can attest to the fact that it sucks to lose a parent at any age. But I was 29-years-old when my mother died. I have many wonderful memories of her that I replay in my mind almost daily. Unfortunately, Pausch's children will most likely not have any memories of their own of their dad. And that is tragic. While there could never be any replacement for the time they have lost with him, I hope the enduring legacy of his lecture and the book that followed will provide some comfort to his children as they grow up.

Pausch's family has requested that donations on his behalf be made to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, 2141 Rosecrans Ave., Suite 7000, El Segundo, CA 90245, or to Carnegie Mellon's Randy Pausch Memorial Fund.