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Life in Alaska

Former State Legislator, Teacher and Fairbanks Homesteader Dies

Fairbanks, AK - Fairbanks educator and former state legislator Niilo Koponen passed away Tuesday of natural causes, according to the family’s website.

Niilo Koponen was born to Finnish immigrants in 1928.  He grew up in the Bronx.  He was the first white student to graduate from the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio. Koponen’s son Alex Koponen says a folk dancing event brought his parents together. Dad twisted his ankle, mom supplied an ace bandage and the rest is history," says the younger Koponen. 

After Niilo and wife Joan married, they drove north to Fairbanks and set up a homestead on Chena Ridge.  Alex Koponen says he’s never gotten a straight answer as to why his parents chose Alaska. “I can guess, we’ve asked sometimes, but just sort of vague answers, or romantic or whatever, I’m not sure,” he says.

Koponen Senior was strongly committed to educating himself and others.  He earned a teaching degree from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.  He taught fourth and fifth grade in the Golden Heart City before leaving to earn a doctorate from Harvard’s School of Education.  After returning to the Far North, he worked as a local school principal and the Director of the local Head Start Program.  In 1983, he was elected as a Democrat to the State House of Representatives.  He worked as a state legislator until 1992.
His son says he was heavily invested in a number of service organizations for the rest of his life.
“He helped organize and serve on various boards.  He got the Friends Meeting, the credit union, Fair Board, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, the Humanities Forum, the Democrats, Crisis Line, Head Start..." Koponen trails off.

Niilo Koponen is survived by his wife Joan, five children and 11 grand- and great-grandchildren. The family will host a memorial gathering on January 5th at the Pioneer Park Civic Center.