Former Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl dead at 88

Herb Kohl, former Wisconsin Senator and owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, has died at age 88.

Herb Kohl Philanthrophies released the following statement on Wednesday evening, Dec. 27:

"It is with deep sadness that the Herb Kohl Foundation announces the death of its benefactor, U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, at the age of 88 following a brief illness.

"Senator Kohl leaves behind an unmatched legacy. He grew up in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee and after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, earning an MBA from Harvard and joining the Army Reserve, he followed in his father’s footsteps and built with his brothers a chain of over 50 Kohl’s grocery stores across the Midwest.

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"When the Milwaukee Bucks were put up for sale and in danger of being bought and moved to another city, Herb stepped forward in 1985 and bought the team with the promise to its fans that they would never leave. When the time came to sell the team, he fulfilled that promise and donated $100 million to help in building a new arena for the community.

"Herb answered a call to public service in 1988 and ran for the United States Senate with a commitment to being "nobody’s Senator but yours" and working across party lines for the people of the state he loved. He served 24 years in the Senate and following his retirement devoted his energies to continuing a lifetime commitment to philanthropic work through the Herb Kohl Foundation.

"Throughout his life, Herb Kohl always put people first-from his employees and their families to his customers and countless charitable organizations and efforts." Joanne Anton, Director of Giving for Herb Kohl Philanthropies recalled.  "Herb Kohl Way isn’t just the name of a street in front of the Fiserv Forum.  The Herb Kohl Way perfectly sums up a legacy of humility, commitment, compromise, and kindness to countless people he worked with, served and helped along the way.  Those values will live on through his Foundation."


UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 8: Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wi., at the weekly luncheons at the Senate in the Capitol. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call)

The Herb Kohl Philanthrophies statement finished by saying the following: 

"In all of his charitable endeavors, Kohl always prioritized protecting and helping young people reach their fullest potential.  He invested in early childhood and K-12 education and the leaders and organizations that made a difference.  He created Learning Journeys that connected Wisconsin students to Washington D.C. through the gift of educational travel.   

"Herb considered himself lucky and realized that much had come to him because of his family and his obligation was to give back more than he received.  That, in turn, led to an innate modesty and humility rare for someone with his long list of achievements. More than anything, Herb loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and that is where he chose to live out his days. He touched an incalculable number of lives, and those who love him would remark that he is among the most decent people to ever walk the earth. Herb’s loss will be felt acutely, and he can best be honored by doing good works."

Kohl's popularity, legacy

Kohl was a popular figure in Wisconsin, purchasing the Bucks to keep them from leaving town, and spending generously from his fortune on civic and educational causes throughout the state. He also used his money to fund his Senate races, allowing to him to portray himself as "nobody’s senator but yours."

In the Senate, a body renowned for egos, Kohl was an unusual figure. He was quiet and not one to seek credit, yet effective on issues important to the state, especially dairy policy. He was one of the richest members of the Senate, and the Senate’s only professional sports team owner.


Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin, questions Eric Schmdt, chairman of Google Inc., unseen, during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Google Inc. is

Kohl was born in Milwaukee, where he was a childhood friend of Bud Selig, who went on to become commissioner of the MLB. The two roomed together at the University of Wisconsin and remained friends in adulthood.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1956, Kohl went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1958, and he served in the Army Reserve from 1958-64. He helped grow the family-owned business, Kohl’s grocery and department stores, and served as company president in the 1970s. The corporation was sold in 1979.

Kohl also got into Wisconsin politics in the 1970s, serving as chair of the state Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977.

Kohl as Bucks owner

In 1985, Kohl bought the Bucks for $18 million.

"I am pleased, happy and delighted," he said at a news conference. "The Milwaukee Bucks are in Milwaukee and they are going to stay in Milwaukee."

He later remarked: "The opportunity I was given to purchase and to keep the team here in Milwaukee is one of the most unique and fortunate experiences I’ve ever enjoyed."

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The team was in the middle of its sixth straight winning season when Kohl bought it, and it went on to post winning records in the first six full seasons with Kohl as owner, before stumbling through most of the 1990s. The team improved in the late ’90s and early 2000s. In 2006, Kohl, owner of the small-market Bucks, was one of eight league owners to ask NBA commissioner David Stern to implement revenue sharing.

Kohl’s civic commitments extended well beyond keeping professional basketball in Wisconsin. He donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin to help fund construction of the Kohl Center, home to the school’s basketball and hockey teams. It was the single largest private donation in university history.

"I was very happy to be in a position to help build a first-rate, state-of-the-art sports arena," Kohl once said. "I think it cements the university’s reputation as one of the premier athletic programs in the Big Ten and the country."

Commitment to education

He also used his own money to fund the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which donates money for scholarships and fellowships to students, teachers and schools in Wisconsin.

In 1988, Kohl decided to run for the Senate, following the announcement that Sen. William Proxmire was retiring, and defeated then-state Sen. Susan Engeleiter, the Republican candidate. He won reelection in 1994, 2000 and 2006. His considerable fortune helped scare away the Republican Party from mounting a serious challenge in 2006.


Senator Herb Kohl, a Democrat from Wisconsin, center, meets witnesses at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 11, 2011. AT&T on March 20 proposed buying Deutsche Telekom

Kohl never accepted a pay raise in the Senate; he drew a salary of $89,500 every year, the same pay he got when he entered the Senate in 1989, returning the rest to the Treasury Department.

In the Senate, Kohl tended to home state interests. He opposed the Northeast Dairy Compact, a program opposed by Midwestern dairy farmers, and helped prevent it from being renewed in Congress. Kohl was instrumental in coming up with a replacement program, the Milk Income Loss Contract, which paid dairy farmers cash when prices fell below a certain level; the program especially helped Wisconsin dairy farmers.

As the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, which controls the budget of the Department of Agriculture, Kohl had a strong say on farm policy. He was also the top Democrat on the Senate Aging Committee and the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. Kohl served as chair of all three panels when Democrats were in the majority.

Kohl didn’t mind doing things in the Senate without much credit. As Congress became more and more partisan, the diminutive Kohl almost seemed to be a throwback to another era.


Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) speaks to U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan during the Senate Judiciary Committee on her nomination to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Monday, June 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rafael Suanes/MCT/Tribune N

"I am a person who does not believe in invective," he once said. "I never go out and look to grab the mike or go in front of the TV camera. When I go to work everyday, I check my ego at the door."

Kohl’s moderate temperament was matched by his voting record.

In 2001, he was one of just a dozen Democratic senators to vote for President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, but he voted against the president’s tax cuts in 2003. He also voted to authorize military force against Iraq in 2002.

Kohl, who never married, said that being single gave him time to balance the demands of life as a senator and owner. A sign on his Senate office desk said: "The Bucks Stop Here."


Gov. Tony Evers (D)

"A Milwaukeean and Wisconsinite through and through, U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl dedicated his life to serving our kids, our communities, our state, and our country. Sen. Kohl was, without a doubt, nobody’s senator but ours. Kathy and I are devastated by the news of his passing.

"Sen. Kohl was deeply committed to community, kindness, and service to others. Wisconsin’s seniors, students, teachers, and schools, and farmers and rural areas, among so many others, are better off because of his life and legacy, the impacts of which will last for generations.

"Kathy and I join the people of Wisconsin, friends and colleagues of Sen. Kohl, and the many people whose lives he impacted—both near and far—in offering our sincerest condolences to the Kohl family and the Herb Kohl Foundation in mourning the loss of this Wisconsin giant."

Milwaukee Bucks

Senator Kohl was a lifelong and proud Wisconsinite who cared deeply for his state and the city of Milwaukee.  As the Bucks owner, he was steadfast in making sure the team remained in the city and his generosity led to the building of Fiserv Forum, which is on Herb Kohl Way.  Even after selling the team, Senator Kohl loved the Bucks and was always seen in his team cap around town.

The Senator leaves behind an unmatched legacy in philanthropy, often anonymously, and through his incredible Herb Kohl Foundation. His impact in sports, public service, and business will also always be remembered in our state. The Bucks express our deepest condolences to the Senator's family and friends.

President Joe Biden

"Herb Kohl was one of the finest people I’ve served with – a kind and principled man of integrity and character, one of Wisconsin’s greatest-ever advocates, and a dear friend.

"As a businessman, Herb was living proof of the American Dream. The son of immigrants, he rose from his first job as a bag boy in his father’s market to build an iconic retail chain. As the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, he helped to mold future world champions, and made sure the NBA team stayed put in his cherished hometown. As a Senator, he always chose work over the limelight and responsibility over ego, serving not for credit, but for the common good.

"Herb and I served together in the Senate for 20 years, including on the Judiciary Committee. We worked together to pass the most significant gun safety bill in history; to boost funding for community policing; and to support juvenile justice programs that helped to significantly reduce juvenile crime, while giving millions of young people a better shot at life. Throughout his career, Herb was unafraid to stand up to the business community that he’d come from, seeking to level the playing field for workers and make our economy more efficient and fair. Time and again, he fought for farmers and food safety; for affordable health care, childcare, education, and prescription drugs; staying committed to the hard work of compromise on behalf the American people. Above all, he cared about the people he served – his employees, his customers, his constituents, and his country.

"In all our years of friendship and time spent serving his beloved Wisconsin, Herb’s humility was always an immense source of strength – for him, and for all of us blessed to know him. He embodied the simple truth that we are a great nation because we are a good people.

"Jill and I send our condolences to his family, his friends, and the people of Wisconsin. Herb Kohl was the best of who we are as Americans."

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D)

"Herb was my role model. Herb was a true public servant, leading with compassion and humility, and uncompromising in putting Wisconsin first. It didn’t matter how powerful the opposing forces were or how long the fight was, Herb was willing to take on any challenge if it meant a brighter future for Wisconsin. Herb was as generous as they come – with his resources, his knowledge, his time, and his heart. Wisconsin is lucky to have had Herb Kohl in our corner and we are undoubtedly a better, more just place because of his service. He truly was nobody’s senator but ours. My heart goes out to his family, loved ones, and the entire Badger State as we mourn the loss of a Wisconsin giant."

State Superintendent Dr. Jill Underly 

"I am devastated to hear of the passing of our champion for public education and school kids, Sen. Herb Kohl. Not only a senator, but also a successful businessman, philanthropist, sports leader, and a community stalwart, Herb was the very best friend to Wisconsin’s schools, educators, and kids. He supported our Teachers of the Year program, and multiple times funded entire slates of teachers’ back-to-school wish lists. Sen. Kohl supported healthy kids, as one of our nation's top advocates for kids getting breakfast and lunch at school. Through fellowships, internships, scholarships, and awards, he funded and supported countless peoples’ education. And at every event I ever attended with him, he took time to meet every kid and parent, and to thank every teacher and principal.

"As a graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools and UW-Madison, and as a champion for our democracy, today we've lost one of the very best – a true mensch. I wish my best to his entire family, and I thank them for sharing him with all of us."

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley

"Herb Kohl was a true champion for Milwaukee County. Throughout his life and career in public service, philanthropy, and business, Herb Kohl worked to lift people up and move our community forward.

"Herb Kohl served the State of Wisconsin with honor in the United States Senate. He invested in educational initiatives to help Milwaukee’s young people succeed. He delivered prosperity and economic stability for so many workers and families. Herb loved our Milwaukee Bucks and made great strides to keep the team here for my kids and so many Milwaukee children to enjoy for years to come. After all, it’s only fitting that the Deer District is located along Herb Kohl Way. The list goes on, but I am simply grateful for Herb Kohl’s countless contributions in our community.

"My thoughts and condolences are with the Kohl family, his loved ones, and everyone Herb touched through his thoughtful compassion and generosity. Herb Kohl’s positive impact on Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin will be forever remembered in our hearts and minds, as we work to build upon his legacy and vision for a better, stronger and healthier world."

Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Ben Wikler

"Senator Herb Kohl was a pillar of the U.S. Senate, generous philanthropist, business leader, and former chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The son of Jewish immigrants, Herb Kohl’s life reflected the deep values of the state he served: hard work, humility and generosity. 

"In business, Herb Kohl put employees and customers first, reflecting the ethos by which he lived his life. His ownership of and dedication to the Milwaukee Bucks kept the team at home in the city he loved, and his decades of giving back helped make higher education a reality for thousands of Wisconsinites.

"In the U.S. Senate, Herb Kohl again put people first, standing above special interests to fight for kids and dairy farmers, for more accessible and affordable health care, and for a more prosperous Wisconsin for all. 

"We mourn the passing of a Wisconsin giant with a heart of gold. Herb Kohl was nobody's senator but ours."

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin)

"I’m deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Senator Kohl. His service and dedication to Wisconsin left an indelible impact on our state. He was an incredibly giving person and as Senator, he championed the needs of children and families, including expanding access to affordable health care and our public schools.

I send my condolences to his loved ones. He will be missed by many but will continue to serve as a model for what it means to be a tireless and courageous public servant."

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee)

"As I prepare to bury my own mother this Saturday, I am forced to think about the legacy we leave behind. Senator Kohl was a man and legislator of another time. With grace and dignity, he navigated politics and differences to build consensus and yield results. He was a common man of extraordinary accomplishments. Yet, he was as comfortable walking into Jake’s on Milwaukee’s North Avenue, as he was walking in the halls of Congress. Of the community, Herb Kohl remained a part of the community. I always appreciated that about him. As a young legislator, I paid attention to his style and independence. While not wealthy, I learned from him the value of being able to finance your own campaigns and the freedom it provided. His campaign slogan "Nobody’s Senator but Yours" spoke volumes. I listened and watched his career. Today, we have lost an incredible Wisconsin champion. However his contributions will far exceed his 88 years of life. Most of us have a connection, story or have been positively impacted by his work and contributions. I think most would agree that Senator Kohl left one heck of a legacy and blueprint for success. I wish to offer my condolences to his family, friends and community that loved him."

State Senator LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee)

"The loved ones of Herb Kohl are in my thoughts and prayers. Herb Kohl was not only an established businessman but a dedicated public servant who was widely supported by people across Wisconsin. A lifelong Wisconsinite, he was a household name and beloved by people across the state. Milwaukee was proud to have him choose our city as his home."

"His involvement with the Milwaukee Bucks, including setting up the long-term success of a new facility, encapsulated what he was known for and what he was best at, which was caring for his community in any way possible."

"Wisconsin has long been a place where we take care of each other and look out for our neighbors, and nobody embodied those values more than Herb Kohl. His philanthropy, dedication to Wisconsin, and immense kindness will not be forgotten."

State Representative Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa)

"Senator Kohl was a true champion for the people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin. During his decades of public service and charitable efforts, Senator Kohl championed causes that mattered most to Wisconsinites–fighting for quality education for every child and improving healthcare accessibility and affordability. Particularly notable was how it was clear that to Senator Herb Kohl, people mattered–to speak with Senator Kohl was to have his full attention, and his compassion.

"Senator Kohl’s life embodied humility, kindness, and compassion. His legacy will serve as an inspiration to future generations of leaders, and may his memory be a blessing to his family and everyone fortunate enough to have met him."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.