CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — The University of Illinois Homecoming Parade on Friday featured two first-time Grand Marshals. In the spirit of this year’s event theme — tradition — the mother-daughter duo reflected on their strong ties to the university and community.
The two women summed up what it’s like leading the parade in one phrase: “ichi-go ichi-e.”
“It means one life, one opportunity. So you seize the opportunity and you embrace it, and you honor it. And I feel like this is what this is for us,” Jennifer Gunji-Ballsurd said.
“Ichi-go ichi-e” was the Japanese saying Gunji-Ballsurd carried with her as she led the way for U of I’s 2023 Homecoming Parade. She and her mother were selected this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Japan House.
“It’s such a great, great opportunity for us to showcase Japan House, to showcase the legacy for the start of the Japan House with my mother, and the continuance with me,” Gunji-Ballsurd said.
Gunji-Ballsurd took over as director in 2012. Her mother, Kimiko Gunji, founded the Japan House in 1998. She said being a part of this historic tradition is an honor, and she knows it would mean so much to her late husband, who was a huge Illini fan.
“As a young man he came here and he never left. So much to learn, so much to contribute to,” Gunji said.
Her husband’s ties to Central Illinois are more than just being a U of I alum. Gunji said his role as a library board member, working for Crime Stoppers, and working for both the university and Parkland College all meant a lot to him. Gunji-Ballsurd said her father’s admiration for Illini Nation was something he instilled in her at a young age.
“He fell in love with this community because it brought him so much joy and he met such good friends. He was an only child, but he met such good friends that they became my aunts and uncles,” Gunji-Ballsurd said.
She said it’s exciting to have generations of families be honored at the parade. She knows her father would be proud they’re continuing a tradition he started so many years ago.
“I think he’s just looking down and smiling and laughing with a gin and tonic in his hand, and he’s just loving it,” Gunji-Ballsurd said. “And I think that he’s thinking, ‘Wow! They have arrived.'”
Gunji-Ballsurd said she and her sister also attended the U of I and continue to be die-hard fans. She hopes her niece will carry the torch for the next generation of Illini students.