FAIRBANKS — Niilo Koponen was known throughout Fairbanks for his community service, his 10 years in the Alaska Legislature, his career as an educator, his conversations, his sauna parties on Chena Ridge and his love of trains and learning.
He died Tuesday of natural causes, his family said. He was 85.
Koponen and his wife, Joan, came to Fairbanks in 1952 and homesteaded on Chena Ridge. They had five children.
Niilo Koponen bought a bulldozer, named Little David, and helped clear not only the 20 acres to set up his homestead but also the fields of other families in the area, his oldest son, Karjala, said on Wednesday. They created their farmstead, raising animals, growing hay and building the community.
Never content to sit idle, Karjala said, his father set to work making his community better, helping organize groups like the Greater Fairbanks/Northern Schools Federal Credit Union and Chena-Goldstream Fire and Rescue.
“He didn’t like just lying around, that’s for sure. That was not his style,” he said. “He always worked hard and lived life with gusto.”
That sense of service eventually brought him into the political realm, when he ran for and won an Alaska House seat in 1982 as a Democrat. He served until 1992, leaving after his wife was seriously injured in a car accident.
Fellow former Democratic Fairbanks legislator Mike Davis, who was elected the same year as Koponen, said he appreciated the older man’s presence and his broad knowledge of the state and its history.
“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.”
Davis, who now works for the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Dillingham, said Koponen’s dedication to public service and faith in citizen leadership not only made the Legislature better but also shaped his own personal life.
“He was a person who believed in public service,” he said. “We both had this dream, and we’re kind of in the same mold. It was wonderful to have this ally like Niilo and have someone like him as a mentor.”
Although Koponen attended meetings “ad infinitum,” his daughter, Chena Koponen, recalled, he still had time for his family.
“He was terribly interested in us as personal individuals,” she said. “He even asked me where I wanted to to go preschool” — the one where her friend was going or the one where he was teaching at the time.
“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.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: