Living and Dying with Character and Integrity

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor whose lecture about living well made him an Internet phenomenon and best selling author in the final months of his life, died on Friday. 

Pausch, who publicly documented his battle with pancreatic cancer and in doing so taught millions of people to cherish life, was honored by ABC and CBS Friday night.  ABC's Primetime will devote an hour to covering Pausch's legacy on Tuesday, July 29.

The media attention is well deserved.  Pausch's story, while tragically sad – he was only 47 when he died and leaves behind a wife and three very young children – is also a story about the power of the Internet and the power of one man's efforts to make something beautiful for his family.  In the end, while Pausch achieved celebrity through his lecture, his real motive was to leave a legacy of courage, love and support for his young family.  Millions of people have downloaded his “Last Lecture” from the Internet and have been moved by his words and example, revealing the real hunger in our culture for messages that inspire, for actions that exemplify courage and sacrifice, for lives that reflect character and integrity.

Perhaps it is the dearth of such positive and inspiring messages in the 24/7 media onslaught that made Pausch's unique story so appealing.  He delivered his “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University in September 2007.  The “last lecture” is an opportunity given to professors to give what would be their hypothetical last lecture, a chance to impart the most important lessons they have to teach.  For Pausch his last lecture was not hypothetical at all, and he told the assembled audience that his lecture wasn't really for them, it was for his children.  While he had his health he wanted to make sure that he communicated ideas and principles to them that would sustain them as they grew up without their father. Someone in that audience videotaped the lecture and found it so profound that they posted it on YouTube.  To date the lecture has been downloaded approximately 10 million times. 

Pausch could have dodged the media spotlight that followed the viral success of his lecture on YouTube.  He could have kept his battle with cancer private and shut out the world in the process while he focused on loving his children and teaching them all he could while he had the time.  To his credit, Pausch recognized that while his message was intended for three young children it was a message that millions more wanted to hear as well.  And so Pausch went public and put himself and his family in the spotlight knowing full well that there was no cure for his disease but knowing too that living and dying well were now his life's work: work could constructively influence millions of people.  In a tribute to Pausch on Good Morning America July 28, host Diane Sawyer said he showed the world “the courage of a loving farewell.”

Oprah Winfrey introduced Pausch's lecture to the global stage when she featured excerpts of it on her program in 2007.  ABC's Sawyer interviewed Pausch for a special that aired in April 2008 on the eve of the publication of his book The Last Lecture which drew on his speech at Carnegie Mellon.  The book became a best seller. Time named Pausch one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2007 and asked CBS anchor Katie Couric to pen the essay honoring him.  When Pausch gave the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon this past May, the network news programs covered it. 

Simple and profound ideas, wrapped in the love of a father for his children were ultimately what Pausch communicated to the world with the help of the media.  He spoke of achieving dreams and recognizing beauty and cherishing the simple. 

One of the most quoted parts of his lecture refers to obstacles in life, which Pausch referred to as “brick walls.”  He said, “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. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough.”  In the commencement speech he gave last May he said, “We don't beat the reaper by living longer.  We beat the reaper by living well.”

It takes courage, character and integrity to scale brick walls and live well.  Randy Pausch spent much of his adult life teaching computer science to college students, but he spent the most important days of his life teaching the world about the power of love and joy, about the importance of courage and character.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.