Most Inspiring Person of 2008

Every year for the last nine years, Beliefnet has recognized 10 people whose outstanding humanitarian actions inspire and encourage us all to live better lives. This year we were again amazed by the courage, compassion, and selflessness of the nominees.

Our community and our editors were presented with a tough choice.

Some nominees were already well known. Paul Newman, who died this year, could have rested on his Oscar laurels, but instead devoted much of his time to helping seriously ill kids enjoy childhood through his Hole in the Wall Gang Camps. Christina Applegate, who makes us laugh on “Samantha Who?,” underwent a double mastectomy and now helps other women with breast cancer find treatment and support. Dara Torres became the oldest swimming medalist in Olympics history and gave an unselfish assist to a rival before a race.

Some less renowned nominees showed exceptional courage. Marine Master Sergeant William “Spanky” Gibson lost his leg in combat in Iraq, but trained himself to excel on a prosthetic leg and insisted on returning to duty. Dr. Halima Bashir, who saved girls’ lives in Darfur, was raped and tortured herself. Despite threats on her life, she continues speaks out against violence in her country.

Educator Darin Headrick spearheaded the building of “green” schools in his tornado-devastated town of Greensburg, Kansas—giving families a reason to stay and rebuild their lives. Brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who survived a massive stroke, used her experience to deepen her spirituality and share her insights with other stroke survivors.

On the last day of voting, three champions stood out to our community. The three finalists were Steven Curtis Chapman, the heroic Boy Scouts, and Prof. Randy Pausch.

Chapman, a beloved Christian music star, had long been a passionate advocate of adoption, inspiring thousands of families to provide homes for children from China. He underwent a tremendous tragedy this year when his adopted daughter Maria Sue was accidentally run over by his teenage son. Chapman held his family together through faith and faced the inevitable media attention with courage, serving as a model for suffering parents everywhere.

The heroic Boy Scouts of the Midwest withstood a killer tornado that struck their encampment in Iowa while they were at a leadership training. The young teens, who called on the skills they had learned in scouting, saved many of their fellow scouts, forming mini-triage centers and refusing to panic. Tragically, four of the boys died. Our community recognized these youngsters for their courage and steadfastness under the most challenging conditions.

But in the end the editors selected Dr. Randy Pausch, the professor who, facing imminent death from pancreatic cancer, delivered a “last lecture” that inspired millions of people to live every day more consciously and achieve their dreams.

Pausch was selected because of his huge, far-reaching impact and because even after his death he continues to inspire legions of viewers. Pausch's lecture, delivered for a small audience at Carnegie Mellon University where he was a professor of computer science, became an internet phenomenon. He reached more people than he ever dreamed of. People uploaded his words of wisdom and inspiring tips for life and forwarded them to friends. By 2008, his inspiration had reached almost 20 million people, His message was simple and powerful: "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand."

This roundup of comments from the Beliefnet Community and The Last Lecture website speak volumes about his impact on people:

Pausch was nominated by longtime Beliefnet member shaner, who wrote: "He showed the importance of living each day well, even if one is dying, and to never give up on your dreams."

Viewers felt an intimacy with Pausch that outlived his passing. "I, like most of us, never met the man," said one fan on the Last Lecture website, "But I can truly say that he has a very special place in my heart. He's inspired me and made me believe that it's not the material things or the accomplishments that make you happy or the person you are. Who you are is made up of each of those little moments you share with the people you love. Randy, God Bless You and I hope someday I can be half the man you are. You will be missed!"

"Randy was brave enough to openly face his inevitable early death,” wrote Beliefnet member fishesp. “I admire his honesty and his appreciation of his family, friends, and experiences. I especially respect both how he prepared for his family's future without him and his special expression of passing the best of himself on to his so they will have opportunities to have some small way of realizing the man he was and his love for them."

Beliefnet member hopefulinChrist summed up Pausch’s influence beautifully: "I cannot think of anyone more inspiring to so many people, people from all over the world. I feel he has changed so many lives by teaching all of us how important each day is--to not live in the past or future but to enjoy the present. None of us know how much time we have so we have to make the most of every day. We need to spend time with those we love and not put off things we want to do or say. The world will miss this wonderful man. I'm so glad he was nominated."

The week he died, thousands of people from around the world posted on The Last Lecture website to send their condolences and let his wife and children know of the impact Pausch had on their lives. Here is just a tiny sampling:

July 29th, 2008 at 9:15 pm
Jai, Dylan, Logan and Chloe--I just watched an ABC special tonight about your father and husband and was touched beyond anything. Randy seemed like a wonderful man and I extend my sympathies to all of you. I am studying to become a teacher and I plan to use him as a role model in my life. I am very sad that he has passed away but he was a wonderful person and just remember that he would probably want all of us to continue being happy and greet each new day with joy and laughter! --Janeen Romp

July 29th, 2008 at 9:16 pm
I am only 14. And I am still uncovering where I want to go. However after hearing about Randy, and how much of an impact he has had, and always will- no matter where he is, and how he always had such an inspired and brilliant way of looking at everything I feel better than great. Because he gave me the ability to persevere and just live life absolutely. He is such an idol to me, and I hope to grow up to become even a fourth of what he was. I have to highest respect for his family and friends, and wish you all the best. --Morgan

July 29th, 2008 at 2:28 pm
Like so many others, after reading Randy's book, I felt I "knew" him, he became a "friend", someone I cared about, someone who mattered. I followed his health blogs and often became worried when days would go by and no news. I once wrote in an earlier blog several weeks ago that I found it ironic that a dying man was teaching us all how to live. So many of us loved Randy, and hoped above hope and prayed so often that Randy would get his miracle. Now, I realize the irony of that. For you see, RANDY WAS THE MIRACLE!! He changed so many of our lives and gave us such a refreshing new outlook on life, about relationships, about honoring what is precious to us and living our lives to the fullest for as long as we can. He also made us realize that diseases may kill our bodies, but we can choose not to let them kill our spirits. Our time on this earth is limited. None of us know exactly the date we will die, not even Randy knew. But he decided that he was going to fight the good fight, leave a legacy for his family and friends, make a difference in this world...--Patty Attway

July 26th, 2008 at 11:10 pm
On Friday I lost a friend I never met. Randy has changed my life forever. I spend my days teach others how to save lives and handle the grief after loses. Randy was an inspiration and he will live on during my classes and my life. Randy was special and unique. After reading his book I rewrote my own mission statement "Changing Life One Day at a Time" I am no longer an Eeyore. --Donn Parris

July 30th, 2008 at 1:07 pm
Dear Mrs. Pausch, Words cannot express how my heart aches for your loss. I have been following your story with Randy ever since I was introduced to the last lecture. The courage and strength that you both expressed was an inspiration to my entire family, and most importantly, to the millions of people fortunate enough to be touched by the two of you. I can truly say that my life, my spirit has been forever improved by Randy. Humankind is better because it has been touched by Randy.-- stephen feinberg

July 30th, 2008 at 10:14 pm
Thank you for giving me back my life. --jean54

The messages continue to this day. Recently, someone contemplating suicide spoke of gaining renewed hope from "The Last Lecture":

December 5th, 2008 at 3:02 am
Few days ago I thought about end up my life...because I lost my job and nothing's going well. I read "the last lecture" this afternoon in the bookstore...and cried 5 times before put it down. I realised it is the day he really wanted. And he gave me lots of words. Thank you. I can do whatever I hope with following his words. Thank you again. --Hyolee

This is the ongoing legacy of Randy Pausch, and the reason we have selected him as our Most Inspiring Person of 2008.

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