Linda Bolton looks out her window at work and is reminded daily of a volunteer effort that still makes her smile.
Bolton, the director of business development and government relations for Vermilion Advantage, has an office that overlooks the three-story "Balloon Classic" painting, done in Danville by the Walldogs four years ago.
"I can't tell you what a thrill" it is to have that view, said Bolton. That's because she was the chair of marketing for the Balloon Classic for nearly its entire 15-year run.
Vermilion County doesn't have a monopoly on hot-air balloons.
For years, the floating billboards for Garcia's and White Horse, among others, were regular sights over the Champaign-Urbana skies. And the Balloon Association of Greater Illinois had lots of members in C-U in the 1990s.
But for the run of the Balloon Classic — from 1987 to 2002 — no one else in Illinois had so much hot air.
It has been 11 years since the 2003 event was canceled. But ask Bolton about it, and you're opening a deep well of enthusiasm that seems not to have waned with time. Here are her thoughts about the Balloon Classic.
What did the event mean to Vermilion County?
It was a major event that drew thousands and thousands of people. It created a community spirit. There was never anything bad about it. It was something that made people smile.
What about the work involved?
It was three days, but you worked on it the whole year. It was like being pregnant and finally having the baby. I wouldn't trade a moment of it.
What caused the festival to end?
It was a change of times, and economic times. It became less and less common for big sponsors to contribute, and the festival needed them. And the weather hurt. (In one of the final years, none of the five scheduled launches over three days happened, because the winds were too high.) We hit a cycle there where we just couldn't get a break.
Also: "There's always a finite number to a volunteer-driven event."
You're afraid of heights. What about the time you finally went up in a balloon?
They'd offered every year for me to go up. I had a decided fear of heights. But they finally said this is it. It's the most amazing feeling I've ever experienced. You have no sensation of height and you lift off so softly. You are on the ground and then you are in the air. You're not afraid. There's no motor. You're very much at peace.
What is it about a hot-air balloon in flight?
Gosh, they're romantic. They excite us, they calm us. I defy anybody to look at a hot-air balloon in the sky and not smile.