WHITEWATER, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater breathed a sigh of relief this spring when Johnny Lechner announced he was finally graduating.
Lechner, a 29-year-old with spiky blond hair, has been an undergraduate at UW-Whitewater for 12 years. Count them, 12.
Although his status as a perpetual senior has made him a darling of the national media, it has also made him a major annoyance on campus. Many of his classmates and professors view Lechner as an embarrassment and are eager to see him leave.
Turns out, that’s not going to happen, at least not this year. On Monday, Lechner withdrew his application for graduation a mere five days before the ceremony. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he planned to stay at UW-Whitewater one more year. “I don’t mean to be the boy who cried wolf,” he said, “but I’ve decided to spend another year.”
As Lechner tells it, he never intended to be a senior for nine years. When the Waukesha native entered UW-Whitewater as a freshman in 1994, he thought he’d be gone in four years like most of his classmates.
But the availability of young women, parties and other campus activities proved difficult to give up. Before he knew it, a decade had passed.
Lechner, who looks like the star of a WB soap opera, estimates he has had more than 100 “relationships” since his freshman year. His bedroom wall is covered with photos of fraternity parties, Halloween celebrations and spring break romps.
UW-Whitewater’s student newspaper, The Royal Purple, has been doing stories about Lechner for several years that have been picked up by campus publications across the country. Lechner has helped spread the word about his boisterous campus lifestyle on a Web site, JohnnyLechner.com.
But it wasn’t until he appeared on the “Late Show,” “Good Morning America” and in a profile on the front page of The New York Times that Lechner began to feel like a true celebrity.
Monster Energy Drink began delivering cases to Lechner’s house after he agreed to make it the official drink of his 12th year. Hollywood types began expressing an interest in a TV show based on his life. And people in Whitewater started to know who he was.
“It’s bizarre,” Lechner said. “I have 18-, 19- and 20-year-old girls throwing themselves at me in bars.”
It’s not just the girls. Grocery store clerks recognize his name. He has a following of older male students on campus who seek to emulate him.
“I think he’s brilliant,” said Ryan Berka, Lechner’s 23-year-old roommate.
But Michelle Eigenberger, an editor at The Royal Purple, said Lechner’s celebrity image is deceiving.
Most students think Lechner is a loser, she said. They are tired of his celebrity stunts.
“It’s getting old,” Eigenberger said. “For the sanity of the rest of the campus, we want him to get out of here.”
Richard Brooks, a professor of philosophy and religious studies who serves as Lechner’s adviser, agreed.
The UW System as a whole has come under attack from the state Legislature as wasteful and inefficient. Brooks said many of his colleagues worry that Lechner is feeding that negative image.
“He’s certainly no model of efficiency with taxpayer dollars,” Brooks said. “One could argue that he’s taking up the seat of some deserving student.”
Chancellor Martha Saunders insists that’s not the case. But she admitted that she had been looking forward to seeing Lechner graduate on Saturday.
Lechner said this spring that he planned to use his graduation as an opportunity to finish writing the TV show based on his life.
So why did he decide to stay another year?
“I realized that if I went one more year, I could study abroad,” Lechner said. “That’s one thing I haven’t done.”