Former legislator Niilo Koponen passes

nilloFormer Alaska legislator Niilo Koponen died peacefully at the Fairbanks Pioneer Home on Tuesday. As one person put it on his Facebook page, “(t)hey don’t seem to make Alaska legislators these days like Niilo Koponen.” There will be a memorial gathering to honor his life at Pioneer Park Civic Center in the afternoon of Jan. 5, 2014. More information will be posted on the family blog here.

Here’s a short remembrance written by a grandson, Max, republished below with permission of the family:

“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 and they homesteaded in Fairbanks, Alaska and they 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. 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.”

Contact Amanda Coyne at


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