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Ex-Fairbanks Rep. Niilo Koponen remembered for activism

Posted: December 6, 2013 - 1:06am

FAIRBANKS — A Fairbanks homesteader who spent a decade in the Alaska House is being remembered for his career as an educator and community activist.

Niilo Koponen, 85, died Tuesday at the Fairbanks Pioneers Home, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

Koponen was born March 6, 1928, to Finnish parents in New York City. He was a member of the Religious Society of Friends throughout his life.

He majored in social administration and sociology at Wilberforce University, obtained a teaching degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and earned a doctorate in education from Harvard University.

Koponen and his wife, Joan, moved to Fairbanks in 1952 and carved out a farmstead on Chena Ridge, where they reared five children. They also raised animals, grew hay and participated in community projects. The sauna at the homestead was shared with neighbors short on running water.

Koponen taught elementary school, and after obtaining his doctorate, was principal at Barnette and University Park elementary schools and the district’s grants administrator.

He helped organize a credit union and the Chena-Goldstream Fire and Rescue, a volunteer fire department. He was active on the civic organizations and the Interior Democrats.

The Democrat won a seat in the state House in 1982. Former Rep. Mike Davis, D-Fairbanks, was first elected the same year and said Koponen’s broad knowledge of the state and its history was appreciated.

“The Legislature was decades younger than him, and he brought the long view of the legislative process,” he said. “He was senior to me. Obviously, he was a mentor to me. He was a very intelligent man, and he was also a person who had a lot of historical knowledge that he brought to the Legislature.”

He believed in public service, Davis said.

Daughter Chena Koponen said her father attended meetings “ad infinitum” but made time for his family.

“He was terribly interested in us as personal individuals,” she said. “He even asked me where I wanted to go preschool” — the one where her friend was going or the one where he taught.

“He talked to us about our individual lives and what we were doing, as well as hundreds of people who filed through the house,” she said.

Koponen left the legislature when Joan Koponen was seriously injured in a car crash. Koponen’s family said he suffered a head injury in 2008 and moved into the Pioneers Home a year later.

He is survived by his wife, five children and their families.

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