There is lifelong learning and then there is Johnny Lechner. Stephen Phillips meets Wisconsin's eternal student
This is the year," exclaims University of Wisconsin student Johnny Lechner. Then again, "you never know". For the past five years, Lechner has been saying he will graduate. But he has always got cold feet. Last year, he went as far as filing the paperwork, but could not bring himself to go through with it.
"I'm happy at the moment, but would I be if I left? Why take the chance?" he explains, rehearsing his annual anguish.
Lechner is perhaps the world's ultimate eternal student. His former adviser, Barbara Monfils, communications professor and vice-chancellor at the university's Whitewater campus, knows of a University of Arkansas student who took eight years to get his degree. But Lechner is about to enrol for his 12th year. The 28-year-old has been an undergraduate since 1994, when the first web browser had just tamed the internet for public consumption.
The feat has brought Lechner Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards-style celebrity not just in Wisconsin but throughout the US.
He even inspired legislation in Wisconsin, the so-called "Johnny Lechner rule". Under the rule, tuition fees for long-standing students are raised to discourage them from dragging out their studies. But despite paying double his classmates' dues, Lechner is determined to take things at his own pace.
He lives in a room covered with photos of classmates from down the years - some now married with kids, well into their careers. Around campus he holds court. He is the subject of "will-he-won't-he graduate" speculation in the student newspaper and commands quite a following among students, says friend John Koskinen. Recently, there were reports of an impostor posing as Lechner to get dates, he says. "Johnny's just mythical."
For a lark, Lechner says he is taking several students up on their offers to serve as his "personal assistant", interviewing to find a suitable protege on whom to confer his legacy.
Which is what precisely? "That there's this guy who went to university, stayed for a decade, had a great time and learnt how to live," he explains.
Part of Lechner's appeal is that he confounds the workshy waster image that his situation might evoke. Far from being a slacker, he is a conscientious student who for seven years has received B grades or above for coursework. One semester, he made the "Dean's List" of outstanding students - albeit plotting a meandering trajectory through emphases in education, communications, theatre studies, liberal studies, women's studies and health, like he was ambling through an academic buffet. More than once, Lechner says, he has been sitting in class with a creeping feeling of déjà vu only to realise that he has taken the course before.
"Not being able to keep up has never been an issue," Monfils says. Lechner has run laps around the requirements for graduation, amassing more than twice the credits he needs.
"When people hear about me, they expect some guy out partying every night," Lechner says. "That's also happening," he quickly qualifies, "but I'm working hard."
He has also involved himself in extracurricular causes and activities, founding the Whitewater chapter of Men against Sexual Assault and Violence, and, last term, standing for student president, before appearances on Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America interrupted his electioneering.
"Balls to the wall," is how he describes his commitment to the university.
He has not let the grass grow under his feet in other areas either, releasing five self-produced albums. Live, he plays barefoot to recapture the intimacy of composing songs in his room and to help him relax.
All of this might deepen the suspicion that there must be a sinister reason why he has remained an undergraduate. But he comes across as grounded and unassuming, staunchly denying any Peter-Pan complex of clinging to eternal youth or flight from adult responsibility. "I love college, I like learning, writing papers, taking tests, reading," Lechner says. Then there is the social life. "There's always a good time to be had."
Lechner adds: "I'm not here to hide from the real world. I just don't see the need to move on to it yet - just another year would be perfect."
Lechner says he has remained open to new friendships. "The old guy at college with his beer and bar buddies? I'm not like that. I've always reached out to younger students."
Koskinen, 22, says he looks up to Lechner as an "older brother". "He's taught me about how fun life can be if you trust it and let yourself be happy," he says.
But, far from extolling him as a Zen master of good times, others say, "get a job".
His mum has no problem with his undergraduate odyssey, but his dad has tried bribing him with a new car to get him to graduate. Among university staff, says Monfils, "you get it from all sides. Some say, 'why doesn't he graduate?' others say, 'it's his life'".
"A lot of people have speculated as to why he continues to take classes," she says. "One of our goals is to see students get their degree, so if someone has been here 11 years, that would appear to go against this."
Lechner can't be accused of being a wealthy trust-funder whose parents indulge his every whim. He has paid his own way, taking out $30,000 (£17,000) in student loans and scraping by on meagre earnings from a restaurant job and his music.
Ironically, postponing finding a job might turn out to be the best career move he could have made. While former classmates, who dutifully jumped through the graduation hoop, "don't have the most glamorous jobs", Lechner's story has landed him on primetime TV, exposure that earlier this year led to him being snapped up by the William Morris Agency. His handlers are touting book proposals around publishers and entertaining interview offers from lewd DJ Howard Stern, among others.
US college entertainment franchise National Lampoon is sizing him up for a reality TV show and has already offered to underwrite next year's tuition expenses.
Executives knew a golden goose when they saw one. Lechner recalls being struck by parallels between himself and the hell-raising, graduation-shy title character in the 2002 movie Van Wilder: Party Liaison , produced by National Lampoon.
The executives broached the subject of Lechner's own reality show. They told him: "You're the real Van Wilder, but you're entering your 12th year - almost half as long again as he spent in college."
Judging from Lechner's website, he is cast as a guy living out a dream of endless carefree college days and "frat house" antics. Merchandise on offer includes a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "Graduation is possible, the party is for sure".
He has already earmarked part of his projected earnings for a DeLorean car to replace his 1981 Friesian-marked "cow car".
All the endorsements could finally force his hand on graduating. There it is, "Graduation: May 13, 2006", on one of the T-shirts, and that this will be his final year is the premise of the proposed reality show.
Next year "will be time for me to conquer something else", he says. But when he ponders the comparative obscurity of becoming just another suit, he starts hedging.
"Here in Whitewater, I'm a celebrity. When I show up at parties, everyone knows my name, people buy me shots and girls want their pictures taken with me. It's very habit-forming," he says. "It's making me happy, maybe that's not the most important thing, but maybe it is."