Randy Pausch is my 21st century hero.
A series of lectures entitled The Last Lecture, where professors were asked to give a lecture as if it were their last, found its way to Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction and Design of Carnegie Mellon University, Randy Pausch. By the time he was giving his lecture, on September 18, 2007, he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was told that he had three to six months of good health left. With that looming over him, his last lecture was, almost literally, his last lecture.
During the lecture, which has now become famous, Pausch can only be described as an inspiration. He refused to dwell on his cancer, instead delivering a talk about "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams". He made his own life the subject, as he had achieved many of his childhood dreams and helped others achieve their dreams. Some of these dreams were tricky, such as becoming a Disney Imagineer, and some of them were quite easy, such as winning a whole bunch of stuffed animals at carnivals. Yet he achieved the majority of them, and he told the audience and millions of viewers worldwide how he did them, along the way imparting wisdoms such as "Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out... The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough."
Furthermore, Pausch delivered the lecture with an upbeat, humorous attitude: early on in the lecture, he told people that, apart from the cancer, he was "in phenomenally good health right now... in fact, I am in better shape than most of you (the audience)." He then proceeded to perform several push-ups, remarking "Anyone who wants to cry and pity me can come down here and do a few of those, and then you may pity me." Although he refused to talk about his cancer, matters of importance greater than achieving childhood dreams, or matters of spirituality and religion, he did reveal to the audience that he had "experienced a deathbed conversion... I just bought a Macintosh".
Pausch has also written, with the help of journalist Jeffrey Zaslow, "The Last Lecture", which is based on - and includes notes and quotes from - his last lecture. At one point, he mentions that the book and the video of the last lecture were intended as a legacy: his children (aged six years, three years, and eighteen months at the time of writing the book) would grow up not having a father, and the lecture and the book were intended mainly for his children after he died.
In his professional life, Pausch is well known for his part in the development of the Alice project - computer software that is intended as an introduction to computer programming using animations - and his contributions to virtual reality at Disney World and the University of Virginia. He has achieved the Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award, and the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education. He is also listed as one of Time Magazine's World's Top 100 Most Influential People in May 2008.
Pausch died on July 25, 2008, from complications arising from his cancer, in Chesapeake, Virginia. News story here. Rest in peace, Randy: you have inspired millions.