Parents of ISU grad and aspiring veterinarian Kristian 'KP' Philpotts give 300 people a free day at the zoo
Family, friends and fraternity brothers of Kristian “KP” Philpotts were greeted by officials from Bloomington, Normal and Urbana at Miller Park Zoo for a dedication ceremony honoring Philpotts, an animal lover and community servant who lost his life to gun violence.
Five central Illinois cities jointly declared July 17 as Kristian "KP" Philpotts Day in honor of the Illinois State University graduate. Philpotts was an aspiring veterinarian who was shot in the back during a robbery attempt while working as a Lyft driver in Urbana last year.
Bloomington, Normal, Urbana, Champaign and Charleston signed the joint proclamation, with each city’s seal across the top of a framed document given to Philpotts’ family during Monday’s dedication ceremony at Miller Park Zoo.
“It’s not often that you can get several cities to put their seal on a proclamation,” said Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe. “Typically, it’s just one of us, so I think that speaks to the powerful nature of mom.”
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin and Kathleen Lorenz of the Normal Town Council also spoke at the joint dedication ceremony. July 17 was chosen to mark Philpotts’ birthday; he would have been 31 years old.
“While Kristian’s life tragically and senselessly ended in my community, his dreams are living on,” Marlin said.
Standing in for Normal Mayor Chris Koos, Lorenz said she believes a person’s legacy lives beyond their years on earth.
“Just to hear about (Philpotts') life and what he accomplished, the legacy he leaves with his fraternity brotherhood — from some of the screeches and sounds from some of the animals nearby, I think he’s with us today,” Lorenz said.
Philpotts was instrumental in reactivating Iota Phi Theta fraternity chapters at ISU during his undergraduate studies and at Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree. The Black Greek Letter Organization had been dormant at EIU for 27 years.
D.J. Jones was Philpotts’ fraternity brother at EIU and attended Monday’s ceremony.
“His whole personality, his laugh, his smile — everything like that showed me that everybody can be different in a fraternity,” Jones said.
Philpotts’ energy for service and accountability toward his friends were unparalleled. Philpotts and his fraternity brothers sponsored fundraisers for St. Jude and the Red Cross.
“We team up with a lot of children’s hospitals and homeless shelters as well,” Jones said. “We do food drives, toy drives, Christmas drives … service first. Service came first with him.”
The ISU and UIUC Iota Phi Theta chapters had each been inactive for seven years. Philpotts advocated for an Urbana-Champaign chapter even before becoming a student; he was in the process of applying to veterinary school there and was two years away from earning a doctorate degree that would allow him to work with exotic animals such as those at Miller Park Zoo.
Philpotts’ parents sponsored free admission to Miller Park Zoo for the first 300 people to visit Monday in honor of their son's charitable spirit. The carousel also was free for the day, as well as snow cones for guests.
“He always said to everybody he knew, people are going to remember my name, and they do,” said Marla Rice, Philpotts mother, speaking a group of about 20 people after the dedication. “Thank you so much for honoring him and keeping his memory alive. Anybody that knows me — I’m just this determined person. I’m not gonna stop.”
A theme of the day was Rice’s tenacity in advocating for her son and seeking justice. She pushed for all five cities to recognize Philpotts’ impact across central Illinois. She also raised money for an endowed memorial scholarship at Illinois State, created last year to support students pursuing veterinary science. And she’s working to petition University of Illinois to give Philpotts an honorary doctorate in his memory.
“I take it day by day, sometimes moment by moment,” she said in an interview with WGLT. “It’s not easy, but I have to do things that keep his memory alive.”
Philpotts’ work ethic is something fraternity brother Ade Awolola wants people to remember.
“He was one of the most hard-working people I know,” Awolola said. “I just can’t believe how hard working he was. Everything he did, he did with the willingness of his heart.”
Jones credits Philpotts with encouraging him to pursue his interest in music and helping him get through school. He graduated from Eastern Illinois University in May.
“He kept me in school,” Jones said. “He kept me in the library. As a young student, you’re going to go to parties, but he made sure I stayed in the library. He looked out for me.”
Three teenagers were charged with Philpotts’ death — 17-year-old Tyjohn Williams is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges. Prosecutors think Williams acted alone. The two other boys pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. In March, Rice filed wrongful death lawsuits against Williams’ mother and Lyft, alleging they failed to act on knowledge that Williams was targeting Lyft drivers.
“Lyft needs to be held accountable as far as safety with ride share drivers,” Rice said. “They need to be protected, too. It’s not just the passengers being protected; the drivers need to be protected as well.”
A memorial bench dedicated to Kristian "KP" Philpotts is in Redbird Plaza. Marla Rice also has petitioned the U of I to award Philpotts an honorary doctorate degree. Donations to the Dr. Kristian “KP” Philpotts Memorial Scholarship can be made online at giving.illinoisstate.edu.