Chapter Eternal: Herb Kohl – Senator, businessman, sports enthusiast, and philanthropist 

Herb Kohl ’56 – UW-Madison, senator, businessman, and former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, passed into the Chapter Eternal on December 27, 2023. 

Kohl served 24 years as a U.S. senator from Wisconsin. He was the founder of Kohl’s department stores and went on to become president and CEO. In 1985 he purchased the Milwaukee Bucks to prevent the team from relocating out of Milwaukee. He donated generously to many causes, always putting people first.

Family business fueled his generous passions

Kohl was the son of Polish immigrants with high ideals. He said, “My parents always looked forward to the future with optimism and determination. They showed us that your life would be measured far more by what you contribute than by what you have.”

The family grew a corner store in Wisconsin into a group of Kohl’s grocery stores. Herb worked with his brothers to grow his family’s supermarket into what would become a multimillion-dollar chain of department stores. 

The Kohl family sold their interest in the business in 1979. The sale helped Kohl invest in his other interests, including professional sports and serving the people of Wisconsin.

Good company in Pi Lambda Phi

Before his business success, Herb found his way to UW-Madison and joined Pi Lambda Phi with his childhood friend, Bud Selig ’56. Kohl and Selig grew up a few hundred feet from each other and were best friends for more than eight decades.

Bud Selig and Herb Kohl – 1955 Badger yearbook

Kohl called his time at UW-Madison and Pilam, “the best four years of my life.” He had good company at the fraternity house, considering other members at the time included Steve Marcus, current Chairman of the Marcus Corporation; Franklyn Gimbel, Chairman of the Wisconsin Center District; and Lew Wolff, owner of the Oakland Athletics.

Lew Wolff said of Kohl and Selig, “They were two of the most dedicated to getting their education of anyone I ever knew. Both were high achievers and had high standards in anything they did at UW-Madison.”

Kohl and Selig went on to own Milwaukee’s two biggest sports teams. Selig purchased the Brewers in 1970, and Kohl bought the Bucks in 1985.

Saving the Milwaukee Bucks

Kohl’s passion for basketball parallels his love for giving back. He helped bring NBA basketball to Milwaukee in 1968, putting the city on the professional sports map as one of only 30 NBA franchises.

Kohl bought the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 to ensure the basketball team remained in Milwaukee. In 1995, he donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for construction of a new sports arena, the Kohl Center. 

Then in 2014, after almost 30 years of ownership, Kohl sold his NBA franchise to help secure the next generation of basketball in Milwaukee. With his insistence that the team remain in Milwaukee and a $100 million contribution toward a new arena, the largest single gift in Wisconsin at the time, Kohl solidified his commitment to the city he called home. 

Though he sold the team, the new owners invited him to lead the the national championship celebration in 2021.

“Nobody’s Senator except yours”

Kohl demonstrated his dedication to his Wisconsin constituents with his campaign slogan, “Nobody’s senator but yours.” 

He was highly regarded in the Senate. Former colleagues from both parties described him as gracious and honest, quiet but effective, but above all, dedicated to Wisconsin.

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler said the late lawmaker was a man whose “life reflected the deep values of the state he served: hard work, humility and generosity.”

A legacy of giving

“Throughout his life, Herb Kohl always put people first — from his employees and their families to his customers and countless charitable organizations and efforts,” said Joanne Anton, director of giving for Herb Kohl Philanthropies.

Kohl also established an Educational Foundation to support teachers and students with fellowships and scholarships. His foundation provided more than $34 million in grants and scholarships to students, teachers and schools. 

Selig said, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anybody devote themselves more to the welfare of the city and the state than Herb Kohl did.”

“I will always remember for the rest of my life the humility that Herb Kohl had and the generosity that he had without expectation of any kind of recognition or reward.”
– Franklyn Gimbel ’55 (UW-Madison)