Speaking of grandkids

Speaking of grandkids, I’ll speak to the ones I know about, of Chena and me: Max and Ben.

On Nov. 22, 2014, Max got married to his partner of 9 years Sophia Snyder in Jamaica Plain (Boston), MA. It was a lovely wedding. The families then spent a few days after in a house off Cape Cod. It was very relaxing, reading, game-playing, walking in the woods. Sophia works for HarvardX and Max continues to play contradance music around the U.S. and Canada as well as organizing dance weekends and helping the contradance community where he can.
Wedding party outside

Ben and his long time girlfriend Lauren were of course at the wedding and after. Ben is working for the State of Alaska Dept. of Transportation in Anchorage providing needed computer support for the department throughout Southcentral Alaska. Lauren has finishing her medical technology certification requirements and hopes to be working in the field shortly.



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 legislative papers 1982-1992

I was putting together some background for Niilo’s memorial upcoming Jan. 5 and ran across a listing of his legislative papers donated to the Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska. The sheer quantity and breadth of subject matter demonstrates Niilo’s ability to absorb and be involved in so much during his time in the Alaska Legislature. It was in his nature to always be learning and trying to promote his values of community and social good. Sadly, such a person would have a hard time getting elected in Fairbanks, Alaska these days. He was truly special.

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 http://koponenalaska.wordpress.com or contact 479-6782 or koponenfamily@chena.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

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.