Baltimore Sun

Preserving childhood paintings of Columbia man behind 'The Last Lecture'

Tammy Pausch Mason, right, stands  next to a painting she did at her childhood home in Columbia that was removed from a wall Wednesday, Oct. 26. Jon Underwood, left, is from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, which was commissioned to remove the artwork from the house.

Decades before his famous "Last Lecture" in 2007, delivered less than a year before cancer took his life, Randy Pausch was a child growing up in Columbia.

There, in a ranch-style house on Dartmouth Road, the teenager, who would graduate from Oakland Mills High School, nurtured a mind that would later teach computer science at the University of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon University.


Over the course of about three weeks in the mid-1970s, Pausch, his sister, Tammy, and a friend painted esoteric creations directly on the walls of his bedroom. The 30-some drawings have remained on the walls long after the siblings had moved out of the family home.

"I was informed I was not to paint over these works of art," Virginia Dorey Pausch, the matriarch of the family, said Wednesday.


But Pausch's mother, 85, has moved to Lynchburg, Va., to be closer to family. She had to sell the Columbia house that had been in the family since the 1950s, but the family wanted to make sure the paintings survived.

And so on Wednesday, Oct. 26, a two-man crew from Carnegie Mellon traveled from Pittsburgh to Howard County. They carefully cut through drywall, pulling pieces of wall away one by one. Two of the pieces will be taken to Carnegie Mellon and put on display. The others will be given to family members.

"When it was clear we had to sell the house, I worked very hard to find a way to put it in someone's hands that would want to keep the room," Tammy Pausch Mason, Randy's sister, 52, said Wednesday. "That wasn't successful, and it became 'How can we save the room?' "

One of the two men helping to save the paintings was James David Whitewolf, a staff member at the university's Entertainment Technology Center.

"Randy was an important person to a lot of people, and what he said and the way he lived his life affected a lot of people," Whitewolf said from inside the Pausch home. "We want to take the few remaining artifacts that we have from his actual living existence and preserve them so that other people can be affected as well."

Pausch entered the public spotlight after a September 2007 lecture given at the university shortly after he had found out his pancreatic cancer had spread to his liver and he only had three to six months of good health remaining. The videotaped lecture became an online sensation and drew the attention of news publications and television shows. Pausch died July 25, 2008, at the age of 47.

The paintings he did as a teen include the basic (geometric shapes) and the bizarre (a large submarine shooting a small torpedo that is saying "Shoop Shoop").

A silver elevator door reaches nearly from floor to ceiling, the numbers above indicating that the bedroom is on the third of six floors. "This is a ranch house," Tammy said. "You're really only ever on the first floor."


A green and red box informs the reader that "at the bottom of Pandora's box was hope." Randy's best friend wrote in the word "Bob" above "hope." Above his dresser's vanity mirror are words, in yellow and red: "Remember when I said you were the fairest? I lied." A blue arrow and the words "A fan of mine" sit alongside a ceiling vent. Also on the ceiling are letters written backward. When reversed, they read: "Help! I'm trapped in the attic."

A video tour of Pausch's bedroom can be seen at

Nancy Glass, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, had noted in her listing that this was Pausch's childhood home. That led to more than 20 showings of the home in the first couple of days, she said.

She wasn't concerned that the bedroom hadn't been painted before prospective buyers came.

"I thought it was perfect just the way it was," she said.

The home's new owner, whose name was not available, is footing the cost of replacing the walls, Glass said.


"When I approached him, he gave us the green light and said, 'Do what you need to do,'" Glass said. "He recognized that Randy was such an iconic figure and it was important, both to the family and the university."

The first piece to come off the wall Wednesday was the quadratic formula, a well-known formula in algebra. Pausch was a mathematical prodigy, and Tammy later became a math teacher.

Carnegie Mellon will be taking two pieces — the elevator and a painting of a rocket ship — and placing them in a multidisciplinary studio named in Pausch's honor, Whitewolf said. The rocket was the inspiration for a similar drawing that appeared on the cover of the book version of "The Last Lecture," which also contains photos of Pausch's bedroom. As a child, he had dreamed of being in zero gravity. As a professor, he'd get to experience weightlessness with college students while riding in a NASA aircraft.

The remaining paintings will go to family members. Tammy said three will be given to Pausch's three children when they are older — two sons, now 10 and 8, and a daughter, now 5.

Whitewolf said the paintings fall into a few categories.

"On one hand it's simply folk art; somebody painted their bedroom walls," he said. "On the other hand, that folk art occurs typically in a period of someone's life … where Randy was actually figuring out the bigger questions in life.


"That's very important. I think we can all relate to that."