(an extended obituary is posted here)
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 http://koponenalaska.wordpress.com or contact 479-6782 or firstname.lastname@example.org 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