Category Archives: memories


On behalf of the Koponen family, our thanks to all who came to Niilo’s memorial program yesterday and especially those who came from far away. It was great to see and hear from so many friends in so many walks of life whose lives Niilo touched.

In the next few days, I’ll have some photos from the event posted and work to figure out how to best post the memorial program video, so stay tuned if you are interested.


Niilo memorial Sun. Jan. 5, 2014 – 2 pm at Pioneer Park, Fairbanks

Just a reminder that we will be having a memorial for Niilo on Sun. Jan. 5, 2014 – 2 pm at the Pioneer Park Civic Center in Fairbanks. There will be a formal program in the theatre for the first hour with opportunity for attendees to offer their reminisces. Following this, the Exhibit Hall will have a display of memorabilia that the family has gathered, to represent some of the many activities and causes that Niilo was involved with on behalf of community over his many decades.

Most of Niilo’s far flung family (kids and grandkids) is coming to Fairbanks for this, as well as friends and colleagues from other parts of Alaska. This is an opportunity for sharing stories, re-making acquaintances, and being a part of the Fairbanks community of doers that we are.

Niilo Koponen 1928-2013

(an extended obituary is posted here)
Niilo Koponen
Niilo Emil Koponen, 85, died on December 3, 2013, in Fairbanks of natural causes.

Niilo was known and respected across Alaska as a homesteader, educator, community and political activist including 10 years in the Alaska State legislature.

Born in 1928, Niilo grew up in a Finnish cooperative apartment building in the Bronx, New York, worked as an office machine repairman and in a shipyard with his father. He volunteered at a Quaker work camp in Finland helping WWII refugees which, after graduation from Wilberforce University inspired him to drive with his wife, Joan, to the “Last Frontier”, arriving in Fairbanks in March 1952.

Niilo worked as an electrician’s helper for the F.E. Company, electrician for the University of Alaska, surveyor, independent contractor with his dozer, and homesteader. He was shop steward for the Electrical Workers’ union at the F.E. Company and helped organize the surveyors’ union and the NEA in Alaska. Earning a teaching degree at the University of Alaska, he taught 4th and 5th grades.

In 1966, Niilo earned a doctorate in education from Harvard. Returning home, he was a principal, grants administrator, and consultant for projects such as the development of village high schools, and Director for Head Start.

Very active in grassroots politics, Niilo helped organize or serve on volunteer and service organizations: Friends Meeting, Credit Union, Fire & Rescue, Fair Board, Humanities Forum, Alaska Civil Liberties Union, Democrats, Crisis Line, and others.

Niilo’s reading speed, range and recall were phenomenal. This enormous knowledge base served the people well when Niilo represented his district in the Alaska Legislature from 1983-1992.

After Joan had a serious accident in 1991, Niilo retired from the Legislature, but continued to work on human and civil rights, education, community, and peace until his health declined.

He is survived by his wife Joan; their children Karjala of Vermont, Sanni of Ontario, Canada; Chena Newman and husband Gary, Heather, and Alex of Fairbanks; grandchildren Katya, Saari, Wendy, Colin, Matti, Max, Ben, and Dane, step grandsons Peter and Danny, and great-grandchild Callie. [update 2016] Since Niilo’s death, Max has married Sophia Snyder and in 2016 had a daughter Theodora. They live in Boston, MA.

There will be a memorial gathering at 2:00 pm on January 5, 2014 at the Pioneer Park Civic Center in Fairbanks. See this website or contact 479-6782 or for more information.

Niilo believed we can make a good difference in our community and world. As he used to say, “Onward!”

The Koponen Family

Reflections from Max

I wrote this last night and originally posted it to Facebook where many kind people posted in the comments. – Max

My grandfather Niilo Koponen passed away after waning for the last few years. He was, to me as to many, an inspirational Great Man. I’m proud to be his grandson.

For the past three hours, I’ve been reflecting on his remarkable life, as I know it. Some parts of it: He was born in 1928. He grew up in the Bronx, the son of Finnish immigrants, attending the NY School of Music and Art. He was the first white student at the historically black Wilberforce University. He met my grandmother folk dancing. They intrepidly homesteaded in Fairbanks, Alaska and raised five children. He left Alaska a few times, to earn degrees from Harvard’s Ed School and from the London School of Economics. He was a principal, fire fighter, and later Representative to the State House for 10 years. He helped found the local Head Start, credit union, and Quakers among many other endeavors. He always seemed to inspire those around him.The Sunday sauna at my grandparents’ place has been running for more than 50 years. The ways I think of Sunday sauna are similar to how I think of him: Open and welcoming to all. Without pretense. Full of conversation on endless topics. Quiet, rousing, bold, rugged, and sophisticated. Intense. Without parallel.

He was, in my experience, many things I aspire to be, among them kind, caring, and welcoming of every person, no matter their background or beliefs, and interested in making a better world, one individual action (and one individual) at a time. He believed a better world was possible and worked to make that vision a reality.

I am feeling quite aware how inadequate a few paragraphs are to capture a person. Niilo, who admittedly read at a truly astonishing pace, would have read the above in about 5 seconds. I know I have only touched on a small part of who he was and his life. But I guess that’s all you can do, from one moment to the next. It’s been touching (and even comforting) to hear from those that knew him and, indeed, from those that didn’t. Thanks to everyone for your continuing comments. They mean a lot to me.

My thoughts are with my family, as well as with all those in Fairbanks and elsewhere who knew him. While I am sad, I am also proud and glad that I had the times with him that I did. I’m toasting you, grandpa, with a mug of smoky tea and homestead honey.

I also found this archived article from 2003 (almost exactly 10 years ago) worth revisiting.

Niilo passes on

Surrounded by his loving family, Niilo died peacefully this afternoon Dec. 3, 2013 at Pioneer’s Home in Fairbanks.

There will be a memorial gathering to honor his life at Pioneer Park Civic Center starting at 2 pm Jan. 5, 2014.

Thanks to all who were able to visit and help support the family during his last years.

The Koponen Family
710 Chena Ridge Road
Fairbanks, AK 99712

Hi from Bob Shalit

hi Heather! I just stumbled upon this website quite by accident – I have a big smile on my face as I type to you, and have often thought and wondered to and about you and family. I have to run to work right now and prep for a lecture (I teach chemistry at Keene State College in Keene, NH, where Tracy and I have lived for going on 10 years, after living in California for 15 years before that.) Our fraternal twin sons are now 23 years old, and Tracy works as the Reading Coordinator at the middle school here. I spend most of my free time mountain biking on the technical trails that abound in this area – the landscape here reminds me much of Fairbanks, actually, evergreens and deciduous and rolling hills.
I talked to Robin and Pauline this past Summer, and am often in contact with Bauricks (Richard and his wife come out here to visit every couple years, actually.) I’ve been renting out the little house on Koth Ct. now all these years, remotely, which has worked out nicely.
I hope you are well, and look forward to reading more of your blog.
best, -Bob

Another Voice from the Past: Jonathan M Nielson

I first met Niilo, I believe, when I lived on Chena Ridge in 1971. Thereafter teaching at the U of A and Tanana valley Community College, my wife Susan and I often socialized and enjoyed many good conversations and political discussions with Niilo.

I left Alaska in 1989 but I’ve never forgotten my life and adventures there or my friendship with with Niilo…a gentleman and custodian of what makes Alaska so unique.

All the best Niilo, Jonathan Nielson

Diana Hall’s Aug 20, 2008 post moved from “About” to main page

We just caught this post and are very sorry it took us so long to move it to the right place! Diana, we certainly remember you and loved hearing from you.

Diana Hall Says:
August 20, 2008 at 10:08 pm

Dear Niilo and Joan, Heather and Chena,

Greetings from Vancouver, BC. to you and all your family. The other day, out of the blue, I was thinking of Niilo and Joan and felt compelled to check the web only to find your blog with its concerning news. My thoughts and best wishes are with you all.

Browsing the blog brings many memories crowding back to me – of Niilo and Joan, the kids and lots of other folks, the homestead, the horses, the sauna, the view, the conversation, the politics, the Friends meeting, and the Ridge, and on and on. It was an intense and significant time!

You may remember me along with Dan Leen who built the octagonal cabin during 1970-72. I’ve let him know about the blog. Dan lives in Seattle and one of his website includes a couple of photos of the cabin which you may enjoy: and . He also has a few photos from when we spent a few winter months at the Meaders’ cabin at Wild Lake.

The blog post about the visit to Creamer’s Field reminds me when I worked at the Tanana Valley Fair (Niilo linked me up with Janet Baird who was the manager) and Old Mr. Creamer came into the office to hand over a certificate about his dairy farm behind the fairground. I remember him rather formally calling me “Mrs.”!

Another time I thought of Niilo was a few years ago when I visited Sointula, a place on the BC coast I had heard him mention because of its Finnish roots. I think I’d bought a postcard but never got it sent. Here’s a link instead: .

Although I visited Fairbanks briefly way back in 1981 and enjoyed catching up with Niilo, missed Joan who was back east. Alas, I haven’t been back since, and I cannot believe how much time has rushed by! Making another connection, I noticed a message from John Dunker who I believe I met in an anthropology class at UBC in Vancouver.

My fondest regards,
Diana Hall