What started as a part-time job opportunity made possible by a well-connected family member led to a lifelong friendship that’s still going strong two decades later.
It was the spring of 1998, Bhibha Das’ senior year at Mount Zion High. Her dad, a popular ag teacher, was in Champaign for the day, bringing with him a van full of kids to an FFA event at the building formerly known as the Assembly Hall.
We’ll let Das, now an assistant professor of kinesiology at East Carolina, pick it up from here.
“When he came out of the event, he found a business card tucked into the windshield wiper. The business card was from a former student, Tonja (Schade) Henze, who was working at Illinois at Edward R. Madigan Laboratory.
“Dad knew I needed a work study job and connected me with Tonja. I worked for Tonja my entire time at Illinois. She was, without a doubt, one of the most influential people I met during my time at Illinois,” says Das, who earned her bachelor’s (molecular and integrative physiology), master’s (health promotion and epidemiology) and Ph.D. (kinesiology and community health), all from the UI.
“As a boss, she was always willing to pitch in so that the work was completed, never looking for any external validation from anyone. She appreciated a job well done because that is who she was.
“She advocated strongly for her employees, demonstrated kindness in her day-to-day interactions, and set high standards for everyone she encountered. When I returned to Illinois to complete my Ph.D., Tonja and I would try to meet for bi-weekly lunch or walking dates.
“Her daughter, Kassie, went from being like a little sister to me to a friend. It’s been 20-plus years but Tonja remains a friend to me and I am looking forward to connecting with her and meeting her first grandson when I travel to Florida for work this summer.
“I’m grateful for a chance encounter that allowed me to develop a lifelong friendship. Tonja and I may have left Illinois but we will always be Illini at heart.”