12-year Undergrad Johnny Lechner Graduating ... Eventually
University of Wisconsin-Whitewater student opts for lucky number year 13
By Jon Horowitz
"I just wish I could get paid to go to college." Unless you're a blue chip basketball recruit playing for a scandalous program, odds are you're not going to get paid to go to college. At best, you may get a free ride by way of scholarships and grants. Or, if you're 12-year undergraduate Johnny Lechner, perhaps your online college fund and some strategic marketing deals will turn some profits.
Lechner, in his 12th and what was to be his final year at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, decided just days before he was to don a cap and gown for his commencement that he'd stay for lucky number 13.
"I've done everything there is to do in college," Lechner says, "but study abroad." That is just one item on a "super-secret-double-probation list of the final 100 things he needs to do" before he graduates in 2007. He refuses to make the list public.
Along with his My Name is Earl-esque list, Lechner, 29, couples his endless social and academic pursuits with his exploits in music and writing. A recording and touring musician for seven years, Lechner will continue his aggressive pursuit of rock stardom. With just under 300 credits to his credit, a triple major and a triple minor, Lechner's 12 years of college have taught him a thing or two -- and certainly not just in the classroom. At the time of our interview with Lechner, he was planning to share his finer (or, perhaps, not so fine) moments beyond the classroom in a memoir and guidebook to college.
Though he relishes the comparisons to fabled fictional collegians like Van Wilder, Animal House's Bluto and Frank the Tank, Lechner is quick to point out that he's no slacker. He's carried a 3.0 GPA throughout his collegiate career, and stayed in college for the combination of academic and social opportunities. Though he does have his Frank the Tank moments.
The man who will become a 30-year-old undergraduate in the fall spoke with HATCH (just days before changing his plans and deciding he'd stay a 13th year) about the 41 percent of his life spent in college so far, (almost) graduating, and plans for life outside his comfort zone.
HATCH: How does it feel to finally be graduating?
Lechner: It's crazy, you know. I think I'm still in denial. People are saying that I'm not graduating. But I am. I've got the cap and gown. I'm ready to do this... Unless some miracle comes up. Something could come up to change all this. But I've done everything there is to do in college but study abroad. I figure, one more year, 13, let's do it right.
What's holding you back from doing year number 13?
I'm like your average, broke-ass college student. I eat ramen noodles. I have cereal three times a day.
What's your cereal of choice?
Not the ones with the marshmallows?
No. Original. Or the generic brand. But this week I splurged.
At what point in your college career did you realize or decide you were going to be at school longer than four years?
It never sunk in to the point where it was a mental decision. My fifth year, friends started graduating. Sixth year, same. I'd duck n' dive, not graduate, add another year. Once I got to nine years all my friends started egging me on. Saying, "Push it to ten." So I made my first mental choice. I couldn't end on nine. I'd have to go a decade. And, here I am two years later.
I feel like I really have done everything. I've been on Letterman, the front page of every paper you can imagine, quoted in Newsweek, at one point my web site (www.johnnylechner.com) got 2.5 million hits, I get emails from all across country, I party all across country. I'm this local celebrity.
And now that you're graduating and leaving your comfort zone, what have you got lined up for after college? And don't tell me grad school.
You're absolutely right. I'm definitely in the comfort zone here. I'm gonna get all sentimental and reflective, why I stayed so long.
I'm writing a book. It's a college memoir, a guide to college life. The way it's written is kind of like a sitcom, in episodes. I'm also working on my music, of course. It's funny, I'm not even doing anything related to my majors.
I triple majored and triple minored.
I majored in communication, theater, and liberal studies. I minored in education, women's studies, and health.
How many credits have you taken?
A little under 300. A few classes I've retaken. Halfway through the semester I realized it was really familiar. Some other times, like right now, I'm carrying an F in my senior thesis.
Back to the music. Are you going to be touring or recording?
Doing both. This was the first year I even got to the East coast. My tours usually will go from the Midwest to the West coast. I try to put out a new CD every year or year and a half. I'm hoping to go into the studio halfway into the summer.
Maybe you're the wrong guy to ask, but have you got any advice for other college grads -- whether they're on the four- or 14-year plan?
Advice? I'm the guy who's so confused. I get a lot of emails asking me for advice. But honestly, follow your heart. Don't let money guide what you want to do next. Don't let friends figure out your life for you. Do whatever you want to do and do it. There are so many jobs out there in the world. A friend of mine is also a writer, and she just got a job as a Kohl's catalog writer. You know Kohl's?
Yeah, we've got them here in Jersey.
It's a great job. And, you make decent money. Figure out what you want to do. In my case, I just love college and that's been a career for me. But I've also been waiting tables, busting my ass, paying money to learn just like everyone else going to college. Of course, I've taken enough classes to be a doctor two times over.
But I'm still very confused about what I want to do. But I wake up every day and I'm happy, and that's more than a lot of people can say.
Have you heard negative feedback about being a career student?
They'll give me shit, say things like, "Don't you think it's time you grew up?" I'm 29 and I'm not afraid to say that.
Friends my age who did the normal route still don't know what they want to do, either. The difference is they have house payments, kids, car payments, repairs, things that build stress on you. All that, and now try to deal with the thought that you don't know what you want to do with your life. Me, I'm surrounded by 12,000 other people who don't know what they want to do. It'd be an interesting study to see if anyone graduating actually said they did know what they wanted to do and see if they're doing that in five or ten years.
I just wish I could get paid to go to college.
So you're paying your way, but have you seen any perks to being in school this long? What is this alleged deal with Monster?
Monster energy drink. It's awesome. And I'm not just saying this because they give me the product... I've got a room at my house filled with it, cases of it, plus hats, condoms, wristbands, stickers, posters. They wanted Monster to be the official energy drink of my 12th year of college. I've gotten them quite a bit of press, and as long as I'm throwing parties or in the social spotlight, it really works out.
Any chance we'll find you in a Monster commercial?
That's the funny part. People throw me into the spotlight -- Johnny College, symbol of this generation of confused people. Truth is, I'm a little camera shy. I'm not the biggest fan of being in the spotlight or being the center of attention. But people say, "Oh, what about your site?" That was just some of my friends helping promote my music. Then we added the whole college thing a few years back. But people see your face is on the Internet, they think you must wanna be on TV, in movies. I say, get someone else to play the part of Johnny Lechner.
Speaking of roles, there are the obvious comparisons to characters such as Van Wilder and Frank the Tank... How do you feel about these comparisons?
The comparisons are awesome. I'm living my life like a movie. To me, I'm happy.
It's funny, I started college a year ahead of Van Wilder. I've been doing the same thing, but maybe a year longer. I've been contacted by National Lampoon. I still talk to them a little behind the scenes... They love everything that's going on.
The funny thing is, people have this notion that I'm a total slacker, I'm lazy, sleeping in all the time. But my grade point average is a 3.0. I'm just an A/B student, but to be that for 12 years is pretty impressive. My biggest problem is I'm very active on and off campus. I balance all the economical stuff with social stuff, going to bars, throwing parties, going to big events... I'm not just this Frank the Tank character going streaking. But don't get me wrong, that is happening.
Oh, so back to the web site with donations questions... I'm not out there trying to beg. But I know, based on emails, people want me to keep going. They're living vicariously through you. But I'll get $20 donations, $50 donations, nothing ridiculously huge.
But you get to a point where [staying in college] is not such a financial decision, and then move on from there. Is it worth me having to work quite a bit over the summer. Well, it is, but I'd be even closer to [staying another year] if I just had a little more financial help.
But if you check out the site, you'll see the tiered structure of what your donation gets. I'm giving people anything I got -- signed newspaper articles, t-shirts that say, "I paid $10 for this shirt so Johnny Lechner can stay ONE MORE YEAR in Whitewater," guitars, I'm thinking outside the box. One of my friends even put on there that if someone gave a $10,000 donation I'd get their name tattooed on my ass.
Better watch out or you'll be stuck with some company logo tattooed on your ass for the rest of your life.
Exactly. Someone will do it, and that's the problem. I'm not a total sellout. There are some things I just wouldn't want to do. But I would go on a date with a porn star for $10,000.
I think you'd do that for a lot less.
OK, ten bucks.
Tell us about the 'Johnny Lechner Rule" at the University of Wisconsin System.
This is the only state in the country that is against someone continuing their education. They try to pass this rule, and yes, my name's attached. They say, "You have enough credits, why don't you graduate?" So I have been paying double tuition, I don't think they expected someone to pay it. The worst part is, if they would have tripled I probably still would have done it. The school that I'm at is so awesome. It's the same school John Belushi went to. It's a small college town. It's got that old school rah rah, the party and social scene mixed in with the high-brow academia.
You start realizing what you're doing is so odd. You meet people each year that heard about you when they were a sophomore in high school. I'm not a celebrity, I'm not a teen idol. I'm average height, an average looking guy who did something a little out of the ordinary. Yet people look at you, at times, like you're the second coming of the college savior.
You've got some really good quotes. And you've got quite a few more on your web site. Where do they come from?
Some are from radio, TV news interviews. Others are things I said and someone saying, "We gotta put that up on the web page." My favorite quote was my goals for the year: "I wanna fall in love, and I wanna get to the Playboy Mansion. I just hope they don't happen on the same night." Unfortunately, both of those things didn't happen this year. Fall in love, give me a reason to graduate. Well, here we are, right back where we started.
Well, with a few college credits under your belt.
At graduation, will you be speaking or receiving any kind of special accolades?
All these things could have been done, but it's become such a media circus, I'm just trying to blend in. Like tonight, we're gonna go out to the bars. But it's not like it used to be. I just can't go out like my friends. Everyone's watching, they want to take pictures, they tell me to graduate or not to graduate. I deal with the good and bad. So I'm trying to blend in at graduation. I just want it to be like any other person's graduation. No other normal person gets to speak at graduation. Let's just get it over with -- it's gonna be awesome anyway.
Johnny Lechner will have to wait at least another year before he can discover if graduating is "gonna be awesome." Days after his interview with HATCH, Lechner opted to stay for his 13th year of undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.