Remembering student Kaitlen Riley

Story by Maya Hodison, Staff Writer

Baker University freshman Kaitlen Riley passed away on Jan. 30, leaving behind family, friends and multiple communities that cherished her dearly.

Just after midnight on that day, Riley, 19, was involved in a car crash on the I-35 highway about two and a half miles east of Ottawa, Kan. in Franklin County. Samuel Caldwell, 20, of Overland Park, Kan. was driving his vehicle the wrong way on I-35 when he collided head-on with Riley.

According to Hays Post, both Caldwell and Riley were pronounced dead at the scene.

Riley was a promising student who graduated from Concordia High School in Concordia, Kan. in the spring of 2020 and then transitioned to Baker University the following fall.

Having already declared her major at Baker as psychology, her dream job as therapist was on the horizon. Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Study Abroad Robyn Long remembers having a delightful conversation with Riley and her parents at a campus event for incoming students. Studying abroad and traveling was high on Riley’s priority list.

Just like many freshmen, Riley had to adjust to the newness of college. Getting used to the fast pace of university class work proved to be a struggle, and her grades were down. Her family remembers sitting at the kitchen table with her when she shared her disappointment. That disappointment quickly turned into motivation.

Her step-father, Kent Morgan, made a deal with her that if she was able to bring her grades back up, he would pay for her to take the semester abroad she had dreamed of. And if she earned a 4.0 GPA for the semester, he would even pay for a “VIP” experience while studying in Europe.

“I already knew that I was going to be paying for [the semester abroad],” Mr. Morgan said. “She was going to push Baker to its limits trying to learn everything she could.”

After that first semester, Long became Riley’s academic advisor and quickly knew her career dreams aligned with her persona. She admired how strong her work ethic was and how devoted to her loved ones she was.

“I grieve for the impact that I am confident she would have made on the lives of her patients,” Long said. “She had a very quiet spirit at times, and people with quiet spirits make outstanding therapists.”

Though her impact as a professional therapist did not come to fruition, she made a lasting impression on everyone she crossed paths with, even those who did not know her deeply.

Freshman Kenzie Rorabaugh met Riley through mutual friends. They ended up having lunch in a group together in the cafe four or five times. According to Rorabaugh, the two got along extremely well and would spend their lunch hours chatting about classes and laughing.

“She was super sassy and spunky once you got to know her,” Rorabaugh said.

Beyond being a dedicated student, Riley had a love for playing tennis, drawing, writing and spending time outdoors She had a passion for helping people and always found a way to see the good in others.

Riley always showed great empathy for people. She had a special gift of sensing when others were hurting and did her best to help in any way possible. She carried the same care for animals.

“She was very good with animals. It was like she had a sixth sense about what they were going through and how to help them,” her mother, Terry Morgan, said.

If she was meeting a new dog she would often say, “I hope their dog likes me.” According to Mr. Morgan, there was not one animal that did not love her.

Riley’s absolute favorite holiday was Halloween. If she could have it her way, spooky season would be year round. But she settled for keeping her pumpkin lights and decorative bats up in her room right through Christmas time. Her family says she always had the best costumes and was in her element when Halloween rolled around.

Riley’s older sister, Autumn Cress, recalls their relationship while growing up. When they were little, Riley would create strange combinations with her food, like dipping her chicken strips in applesauce. As they grew into young adults, they would often drive around together, sometimes aimlessly, and sing in the car.

They loved each other and Cress appreciated that her little sister felt like she could always turn to her for advice.

“We went through a lot of challenges as kids but one thing we always knew for sure was that we had each other’s backs no matter what,” Cress said.

According to her mother and her step-father, Riley had a complicated relationship with her parents at times, but they were also incredibly close.

Before she left for college, Riley left her mom several envelopes with a note inside each one. Each envelope was for a different kind of day.

“She had an envelope for the days I was stressed, if we had an argument, if I was missing her, if I needed a hug and finally one just to tell me how strong she thought I was and how she knew I could get through anything,” Mrs. Morgan said. “She wanted me to know that she was always available for a text or phone call, and that she loved me.”

Throughout her time at Baker, she kept in contact with her mom and the rest of her family to share her college adventures.

According to her family, Riley loved Baker. She raved about the classes she was taking, getting sushi and late night junk food with her roommates and getting beat by Reverend Kevin Hopkins in a ping pong tournament.

Riley’s mom feels her time at Baker was a growth period.

“She was learning who she was and facing a lot of her fears,” Mrs. Morgan said.

Riley was experiencing college in the ways her family always hoped she would, leaving her impact not just on those who were close to her, but also the Baker University community as a whole.

“I think she was in her happy place at Baker,” Mr. Morgan said. “I have no doubt that she was going to be forever orange.”