It all began with one, age-old question: What would you say if you knew you were going to die and had a chance to sum up everything that was most important to you?
That question had been posed to the annual speaker of a lecture series at Carnegie Mellon University, where Pausch was a computer science professor. For Pausch, though, the question wasn't hypothetical.
Pausch, a father of three small children with his wife Jai, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer -- and given six months to live.
Friends and colleagues flew in from all around the country to attend his last lecture. And -- almost as an afterthought -- the lecture was videotaped and put on the Internet for the few people who couldn't get there that day.
That was all it took.
Somehow amid the vast clamor of the Web and the bling-bling of million-dollar budgets, savvy marketing campaigns and millions of strange and bizarre videos, the voice of one earnest professor standing at a podium and talking about his childhood dreams cut through the noise.
The lecture was so uplifting, so funny, so inspirational that it went viral. So far, 10 million people have downloaded it.
And thousands have written in to say that his lecture changed their lives.
If you had only six months to live, what would you do? How would you live your life? And how can all of us take heart from Pausch's inspiring message to live each day to its fullest?
Pausch's answers to these questions, both in the lecture and in three separate interviews over a series of months with Diane Sawyer, are moving, funny, thought-provoking and extraordinary.
According to PanCAN, an advocacy organization for the pancreatic cancer community, approximately 37,170 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008 and 33,370 will die from it.
It is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and unlike other cancers, during the last 30 years the medical community has seen very little advancement in prolonging the lives of pancreatic cancer patients.
But instead of focusing on his death, Pausch spoke about his childhood dreams. "You may not agree with the list but I was there. ... Being in zero gravity, playing in the National Football League, authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia -- I guess you can tell the nerds early. ... I wanted to be one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park."
He went on to attain almost all of those dreams, but they didn't all come easy.
In the lecture, he speaks of overcoming the obstacles that may seem insurmountable.
Although he graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, he nearly didn't get in to Brown in the first place -- he was wait listed. It was a brick wall that some might have walked away from. But Pausch has a novel way of looking at obstacles:
"The brick walls are there for a reason," he said during his lecture. "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."
He kept calling the college until it let him in.
Pausch maintains his most formidable brick wall was a beautiful graduate student named Jai Glasgow. Pausch was 37, with a reputation as something of a ladies' man, when he met her at a lecture. Pausch was smitten, but she resisted. However, he refused to give up, and they eventually married and had three children.
Pausch speaks movingly of how he is now trying to create memories for his three kids, Dylan, 6, Logan, 3, and Chloe, 18 months, and why he can't allow himself to wallow in self pity.
"I mean, the metaphor I've used is ... somebody's going to push my family off a cliff pretty soon, and I won't be there to catch them. And that breaks my heart. But I have some time to sew some nets to cushion the fall. So, I can curl up in a ball and cry, or I can get to work on the nets."
Pausch was already a popular professor, and one of the foremost teachers in the field of virtual reality, when he proposed a class that would become legendary at CMU: It was called Building Virtual Worlds, a high-wire act that brought together students from many different disciplines, writers and computer programmers and artists who were forced to work together intensively in small groups.
Pausch told Sawyer that while the course was ostensibly about designing virtual reality worlds, there was a stealth message as well: "How do you behave with integrity? How do you behave in a way that other people will respect you and want to keep working with you?"
The result was so popular that it eventually spawned an entire program at the university. Together with drama professor Don Marinelli, Pausch started the Entertainment Technology Center, which over the years has become the go-to school for video gaming and Hollywood high tech.
At the ETC, students were encouraged to try the unconventional and the risky.
As former student Phil Light said, "We went to him and said, 'We have these ideas, we have a couple of ideas. This idea here is very safe. This idea here is risky.' He said, 'Go for the risk. It's better to fail spectacularly then to pass along and do something which is mediocre.'"
Pausch says that over the years, he went from attaining his own childhood dreams to learning to enable the dreams of his students, which he maintains is every bit as satisfying.
'Never Lose the Childlike Wonder'
To enable dreams on a grand scale, Pausch began his latest venture, called Alice. Alice is a free computer application that teaches kids to program, while giving them the impression that they are simply creating animated stories.
Created by a Carnegie Mellon team including Wanda Dann, Dennis Cosgrove and Caitlin Kelleher, Alice has already been downloaded more than a million times. The new version of Alice will feature characters from the popular computer game "The Sims."
Since his diagnosis, Pausch has devoted almost all of his time to his family, moving to a location near his wife's family, so that she will have some emotional support, and spending a lot of time with his three kids.
He has tried to approach what he calls his "engineering problem" as a scientist: He interviewed people who'd lost their parents and asked them what they would have wanted to have as keepsakes; what they wished their parents had told them before they died. Pausch says he wants to make sure he gives his wife and children what they will need to remember him, and to know that he loved them.
He and his wife, Jai, consulted psychotherapist Michele Reiss and other experts to help them grapple with such issues as when to tell the children. Reiss says very young children "have no particular time orientation yet. So you can talk to a young child in terms of breakfast time, or lunchtime, or dinnertime, or nap time, but you can't talk about the day after tomorrow, or next week, or next month, much less three to six months from now."
Therefore, the decision was made not to tell the children until their father is much sicker. The Pausch family asks any viewers who might run into them to respect the experts' opinion and say nothing.
One of the things Pausch is leaving behind for his kids: the lecture. He calls it a message in a bottle. The lecture, along with private videos he is making for their eyes alone, and a book he has written called "The Last Lecture" will help give his children -- at least one of whom is too young now to be able to have distinct memories of her father -- a sense of how much he loved them.
Sawyer asked Pausch about his children, in particular Chloe, the youngest. "I hope that her passion will take her to wherever she goes. And the same for Dylan and Logan. I just hope that they have passion for things, and I'm sure they will. I'm sure their mother will instill that in them. And whatever they see of me in direct memories and indirect memories, uh, will send that signal. Because if they have passion for things, then I'm happy for whatever they have passion for."
But if the lecture was written for an audience of only three, it has touched millions of others as well. People around the country told ABC News about the many ways his lecture had helped bring magic into their lives.
Alfred Nicolosi of Salem, N.J., said the night he watched Pausch's lecture was the "same night when Randy's life turned mine around." Battling depression, cancer surgery and facing heart problems, Nicolosi cleaned up his life, literally.
"I had never been very organized person, but this was exceptional. I'd allowed piles of boxes, groceries, laundry, books scattered everywhere. There was absolutely no order to my life, no way to find things, it was just lost. So immediately after seeing the lecture, I began to organize my house, and I felt like I was rediscovering my life in the process."
Peter Riebling, a lawyer from Vienna, Va., handed his 10-year-old daughter, Kimberly, a pencil and gave her free reign on her bedroom walls. "He told me to go draw on my walls, so at first I honestly thought he had gone crazy, because most parents wouldn't let their children draw on the walls, especially when they are brand new and painted and stuff. So I did start drawing on my walls -- and then I actually found it was extremely fun so I kept doing it," said Kimberly.
Diane Gregory from Las Vegas encouraged her teenage son Matt to express himself by hanging every piece of sports memorabilia he had collected on his walls. Matt jumped at the opportunity and with the tacks and double-sided tape went to work. Harry Wooten, a choir minister from Dallas, uses Pausch's message to touch his congregants through prayer and song.
After battling breast cancer, Kaje Lane of Los Angeles says Pausch has inspired her to pursue singing -- a passion she had put aside for many years.
"I think so many people relate to Randy because every one of us has some sort of dream they want to make real, or some sort of passion that they want to tap into if they're not already thinking that way. … I think people are just drawn to that. It's very magnetic to see someone positive not just about the big things but the little things."
But even though he had enabled the dreams of so many others, we couldn't help but notice that there was one dream Pausch had never been able to fulfill -- playing in the NFL.
So we made a couple of phone calls, and in October, Pausch took the field with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was wearing the jersey of his favorite player: wide receiver Heinz Ward.
Moments later he was catching balls thrown by Ward.
He caught every pass -- and even kicked a field goal, on his first attempt.
"There was a definite sense," Pausch told Sawyer, "when I put that talk together, to use another football expression, you know, I wanted to leave it all on the field. … If I thought it was important, it's in there. I played in football games where you walk off the field and the scoreboard didn't end up the way you wanted. But you knew that you really did give it all. And the other team was too strong. Yeah, I'm not going to beat the cancer. I tried really hard … but sometimes you're just not going to beat the thing…I wanted to walk off the stage and say anything I thought was important, I had my hour."
After a recent bout in the hospital to overcome kidney and congestive heart failure -- side effects of his chemotherapy -- Pausch returned home to his family.
"His fate is, is our fate, but it's just sped up," said co-author Jeff Zaslow. "He's, you know, 47, and, and we don't know when we're gonna go, but we all have the same fate. We're all dying, just like Randy is … when we can see him, how he's, how he's traveling, it makes us think about how we're going to travel."
Millions of people around the globe have been touched by his message of optimism.
Sawyer recently asked Pausch what was the best thing that had happened to him that day. He replied, "Well, first off, I'd say the day's not over yet. So there's always a chance that there will be a new best."