There were 400 of us in the auditorium on that warm September afternoon when Randy Pausch gave his last lecture. We watched him fill the stage with an unbounded enthusiasm and a visceral love of life. We knew we were seeing something remarkable.
I attended the lecture to write about it. I'm a columnist for The Wall Street Journal – my beat is "life transitions" – and I thought Randy might make a compelling 800-word story. I had no expectations beyond that.
But the morning my column appeared, my email inbox began filling up with hundreds — and then thousands — of messages from readers who were moved and inspired by Randy. The response was unlike any I've experienced as a journalist.
It was as if Randy had touched the yearning in all of us to have a wise lecturer spell out, very simply, the complete meaning of life. Of course, Randy didn't do that. Who could? And yet, with his doctors telling him he had just months to live, and his students holding back tears in front of him, he had given it an absolutely heroic try.
Producers from ABC's "Good Morning America" called the morning my column ran. The Journal had gotten a tape of the lecture, and we sent our copy over to ABC. The following morning, Diane Sawyer showed clips of the talk, and interviewed Randy on "Good Morning America." The Last Lecture phenomenon grew exponentially from there.
Randy had expected to go home and quietly spend his final days with his wife and kids. Now his life had become a whirlwind. Video of his lecture spread all over the world, and thousands of bloggers wrote essays celebrating him. Their headlines were effusive: "The Most Important Thing I've Ever Seen," "Randy Pausch, Worth Every Second." Many compared his talk to Lou Gehrig's "Luckiest Man Alive" speech.
Not surprisingly, Randy was asked to expand his lecture, and to tell his life story, in a book. Given that his time is so precious, and that he wants to spend most of it with his kids, he asked me to be his coauthor. Each day, he rode his bike around his neighborhood, getting exercise crucial to his health. Those were times he couldn't be with his kids anyway. And so, during 53 long bike rides, he talked into his cell-phone headset in Virginia, while I sat at my desk in Michigan, tapping away at my computer. He talked about his adventures, his regrets, the lessons he'd like to leave for his kids – and also all that he has learned from thousands of strangers who've contacted him since the lecture.
He also shared heartfelt advice he had received from people he was just getting to know, including Diane Sawyer. One day, when the cameras were off, she helped him think more clearly about the touchstones he'll be leaving for his kids.
"She gave me an incredible piece of advice," he told me. "I knew I was going to leave my kids letters and videos. But she told me the crucial thing is to tell them the specific idiosyncratic ways in which I related to them. So I've been thinking a lot about that. I've decided to tell my kids things like: 'I love the way each of you tilted back your heads when you laughed.' I will give them specific stuff they can grasp.'"
In my time working with Randy on the book, I've seen how the input of others has buoyed and inspired him. I also have seen his enthusiasm for living from a front-row seat. Randy is special in ways I'm still trying to understand and process. And I'm glad that, in book form, "The Last Lecture" will be part of his legacy.