Each year the Finnish Theme Committee of Hancock selects a Hankookin Heikki (The Heikki of Hancock), who then presides over the Heikinpäivä festivities. The official announcement is made each December during the annual Finnish Independence Day program in the Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University. Chosen because of his/her contributions to the preservation and enhancement of Finnish-American cultural life in Michigan’s Copper Country, Hankookin Heikki’s main event task is to ride what is the arguably the world’s largest kick sled, a crowd favorite at Heikinpäivä, donning the traditional Hankooki Heikki robes and crown, and waving the copper scepter in the festival’s mid-winter parade.
The reigning Hankookin Heikki, selected in 2019, is Mary Pekkala of Hancock. She has been a devoted and tireless behind-the-scenes volunteer for the Finnish Theme Committee, as well as numerous other civic and cultural organizations, for decades. She joined the Theme Committee in 2000, and after one year her fellow members recognized her skills in financial matters (she worked for more than 40 years at Superior National Bank) and elected her treasurer – a post she’s held since. She also volunteers time at home to serve as the registration-taker for the Heikinpäivä enrichment classes each year. She’s also a member of the Finlandia University Finnish Council in America, a group she joined in 2012 after – you guessed it – volunteering to help at the group’s Finnish Folk Music Camps. She recently completed a term as that group’s vice president. After she retired from Superior National Bank in 2008, Mary became a regular volunteer at the Finnish American Heritage Center, spending countless hours – both at the Center and from her home – compiling data, cataloging obituaries and other genealogical resources, and generally stepping in to help wherever and whenever it was needed. On top of that, she was also a member of the FinnFest USA 2013 board of directors
The 2018 Hankookin Heikki was filmmaker Kristin Ojaniemi of Bruce Crossing. A lifelong resident of Bruce Crossing, Ojaniemi recently created the documentary film “Co-operatively Yours,” telling the story of the Finnish cooperative movement in North America through the lens of the Settlers Co-op in Bruce Crossing, which celebrated its centennial in 2017. Ojaniemi traveled to Finland to conduct research and interviews for the film, and through this project has gained a stronger appreciation and understanding of her Finnish roots, and those of her home community.
The 2017 honorees were the Mark and Riikka Hepokoski family of Hancock. The Hepokoskis have literally been the poster children for Finnish culture in the Copper Country. Their children have been on the poster for FinnFest, the FAHC’s Facebook page, Finlandia Foundation literature, and the 2017 Heikinpaiva event. They were also featured on a recent episode of “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations,” a television program on the Travel Channel, during which many of Riikka’s Finnish dishes were featured.
The 2016 honorees were John and Pauline Kiltinen of Marquette, Michigan.Both are members of Finlandia University’s Finnish Council in America, are active in numerous Finnish-American organizations that have Copper Country connections, and were the driving force behind the recent renovations in the FAHC’s Martha Wiljanen Community Hall. Most significantly, perhaps, they personally led the effort to commission the international opera “Rockland,” which was about the events surrounding a miners’ strike in the Upper Michigan town of Rockland, where striking Finnish miners were confronted by sheriff’s deputies. The opera played to sell-out audiences both in Finland and in the Copper Country. Their involvement isn’t limited to their local area. John served on the FinnFest USA board of directors, and both played key roles in organizing the FinnFest USA celebrations that took place in Marquette in 1996 and 2005, as well as the 2013 FinnFest held in the Copper Country.
Other Hankookin Heikkis include:
Reuben Niemistö – 2015 A longtime board member and past president of the Hanka Homestead near Askel, Michigan, Reuben has devoted many of his nearly 9 decades of life to sharing Finnish cultural traditions, especially those from the more distant past.
Dave Maki – 2014 A staff member of the Finnish American Reporter and Finnish American Heritage Center at Finlandia University, Dave has worked in Finnish-American activities for all but one year of his “working” life. He was also a member of the FinnFest USA 2013 board of directors, and a longtime member of the Finnish Theme Committee.
Dan Maki – 2013 A longtime history and Finnish professor at Finlandia University, Dan has been regularly involved in Finnish activities in the Copper Country throughout his life. He’s often seen on stage (in plays and concerts) and as various costumed characters in the Heikinpäivä parade.
Hazel Tepsa — 2012 Hazel has been a Finnish Theme Committee member, as well as a volunteer for numerous other area organizations, for much of her life. She perfers to provide her contributions in in behind-the-scenes ways, but due to her increasing involvement in Copper Country activity she’s becoming more readily recognized.
Esther Pekkala — 2011 Esther has always been interested in her Finnish heritage, and has typically expressed her interest in behind-the-scenes ways. A longtime employee of Suomi College, she was part of the committee that organized and executed Finn Fest USA in 1985 and 1990. Esther is also the last active charter member of the City of Hancock’s Finnish Theme Committee.
Melvin Kangas — 2010 Longtime Finlandia University (Suomi College) music professor and theater director Melvin Kangas’ contributions to Copper Country Finnish-American culture aren’t limited to the campus. A master kantele player, he has performed at countless weddings, funerals and other events. Many of the plays he’s directed have had a Finnish connection, including his most recent production, which he translated from the original Finnish.
Kay Seppälä — 2009 Most recognized for her efforts leading the youth dance group Kivajat, Kay Seppälä is one of Finnish America’s most active promoters in the Copper Country. A native of Ontonagon now living in Chassell, Kay also offers kantele lessons on both 5 and 10 string instruments, and has taught dance for adults with her husband, Hal. The Kivajat traveled to Finland in the summer of 2009.
Oren Tikkanen — 2008 Well known to folk music enthusiasts around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Oren Tikkanen has played a key role in countless concerts and other Finnish and Finnish-American musical endeavors. Not only does he play with numerous area bands, he’s also teaching his skills to Kelly Suvanto through a Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Tikkanen also finds time to write columns and articles about Finnish and Finnish American music, as well as poetry.
Mary (Biekkola) Wright and Rick Kauppila — 2007 Community artist Mary Wright created perhaps the most visible aspect of Heikinpäivä 2007 with the colorful mittens that lined Hancock’s streets. That project is one of several that Wright led in recent years. The project would not have been possible, however, if not for the skill and generosity of Rick Kauppila, who crafted the stands for each mitten.
Jim and Debbie Kurtti — 2006 Painesdale residents Debbie and Jim Kurtti have long been leaders in the Copper Country’s Finnish community. Jim is involved with numerous Finnish and Finnish-American organizations. He is the editor of “The Finnish American Reporter” and director of the Finnish American Heritage Center and Historical Archive. Debbie, while not as immersed on an official sense, has become nearly as recognizable for her regular participation and assistance at Finnish-themed events in the area. Her Finnish creations in the kitchen are frequently a hit at events.
Ed Lauluma — 2005 A lifelong Chassell resident who has played at countless dances and Finnish-American events around the Midwest, including an appearance on stage with Garrison Keillor in Minneapolis. He has also taught his Finnish-style fiddling to Kelly Suvanto through a Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Sadly, Ed passed away in November 2005.
Arja-Leena Karstu— 2004 Longtime proprietor of FinPro store in Hancock, former Finnish language teacher at Finlandia University.
Dr. Robert Ubbelohde — 2003 Former President of Finlandia University, Honorary Consul of Finland for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan
Carl Pellonpää — 2002 Host of WLUC-TV6’s Finland Calling for more than 40 years. Frequently hosts “Suomi Kutsuu” dances in communities across Upper Michigan.
Seppo Mäkinen — 2001 Architect who specializes in snowhouse (lumitalo) construction. Helped create first-ever snowhouses in Michigan’s Copper Country, believed to be the first in the U.S.
Maija Stadius— 2000 Retired Hancock elementary school teacher who was one of the driving forces behind the Hancock school system becoming the first to offer Finnish for credit as part of its curriculum.
Rev. E. Olaf Rankinen — 1999 Retired Lutheran pastor and Archivist Emeritus at Finlandia University. Olaf remained active with the archives well into retirement, and was frequently interviewed by scholars and researchers about his many life experiences. Sadly, Olaf passed away in December 2004.
Katherine Heideman — 1998 Longtime Hancock City councilwoman who worked tirelessly to encourage the council to promote the city’s prominent Finnish heritage. Sadly, Katherine passed away in June 2003.