That was the message shared by award-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, who spoke with audiences at both the Davis Conference Center and the Northridge High School auditorium on Feb. 26, part of a day of presentations sponsored by the Davis Education Foundation and Davis Reads. For Zaslow, that story was Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Pausch’s last lecture, a column that transformed into a book and the memory of a friendship that will last a lifetime.
“I’ve been writing for 30 years, and nothing I’ve ever written about came close to Randy Pausch,” said Zaslow, who first spoke to Pausch just before attending the late 2007 lecture.
Pausch, who decided to give the lecture after learning that his pancreatic cancer was terminal (he died in 2008), condensed decades worth of life lessons he wanted to pass onto his children after he was gone into a lecture he knew the university would be taping.
“I’ll take an earnest person over a hip person any day,” said Pausch in one video clip from the lecture. “Hip is short term. Earnest is long term.”
Though he had no idea that his words would ever move beyond the 400 people who attended his initial lecture, Zaslow’s initial column started a whirlwind of attention that has led the book to be translated into 44 languages and top bestseller lists all around the world.
“It was an astonishing afternoon, like nothing I’d ever seen before,” said Zaslow. “Randy was the most alive person in the room.”
Pausch and Zaslow decided to work on the book during Pausch’s daily hour-long bike rides, which were recommended by the doctor and allowed Pausch not to take any more time away from his wife and children.
“Randy said he liked having me in his ear,” said Zaslow. “On his own on the bike he’d sometimes get sad, but with me he had an audience again.”
Sometimes, new lessons would spring up in the middle of their daily discussions, such as the time Pausch discovered that he had been double-billed for his groceries in the self-checkout line at the supermarket.
“When I asked him what he was going to do about it, he said ‘It’s going to take me 15 minutes to find the manager and fix this,’” said Zaslow. “‘I’m dying. I’d rather have 15 minutes than $16.’”
The book was finished in time for Pausch to have a say over every part of it, and even after the daily calls ended Zaslow and Pausch continued to exchange e-mails and share stories they’d both received about people whose lives had been touched by the book. After Pausch died last July, however, Zaslow was the only one left to read them.
“After Randy died, I got so many e-mails saying, ‘I cried for a stranger,’” he said. “They felt like they knew him.”
Recently, Zaslow checked in with Pausch’s widow, Jai, and said that there was a possibility that they would work on a book from her perspective about Pausch’s final days and the year after his death.
The lessons that Pausch left behind may have traveled all the way around the world, but they also stay in the hearts of the kids he directed them to in the first place.
“The day after Randy died his son Dylan went up to Steve (a family friend) and asked ‘Is cancer solvable?’” said Zaslow. “When Steve explained that some was and some wasn’t, Dylan looked thoughtful and said ‘My dad told me that I have it in me to solve problems.’”