Herb Kohl memorial honors philanthropist, former US senator

Mourners gathered at Fiserv Forum arena to pay respects and honor the life of philanthropist and former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, who is celebrated for his public service and support for the Milwaukee Bucks.

By Murv Seymour | Here & Now

January 12, 2024

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“He lived a life we all admired,” declared Jim Paschke, a longtime Milwaukee Bucks sportscaster.

Since passing away on Dec. 27, the flag at the Wisconsin State Capitol and other government buildings across the state have flown at half-staff in memory of Herb Kohl.

“The Bucks had suggested honoring Herb with a statue outside the arena,” said his nephew Dan Kohl. “My uncle declined saying, ‘I’m just not a statue kind of guy.'”

From inside the arena he helped fund, and near the street that shares his name, people packed Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Jan. 12 for his memorial service.

“Saying goodbye to Herb after more than 80 years of saying hello in so many more welcoming and positive words is really difficult,” said his friend and college roommate Bud Selig, a former Milwaukee Brewers owner and commissioner of Major League Baseball.

It’s fitting the tribute for Kohl was open to all of Milwaukee and Wisconsin — the city where he grew up and the state he served. People proudly remember the four-time U.S. senator with the legendary slogan: “Nobody’s senator but yours.”

Following his father’s footsteps, in the 1970s Kohl and his brother led the booming growth of Kohl’s grocery stores, which began in Milwaukee, spread throughout Wisconsin, and grew into a brand of over 1,100 department stores in every state but Hawaii.

Herb Kohl has been a familiar face on PBS Wisconsin’s political programming.

“Tonight we’ll interview Senate candidates Herb Kohl and Susan Engeleiter,” said former anchor Dave Iverson in a 1988 edition of Wisconsin Week.

“Government is too important to be left exclusively to career politicians,” said Kohl on the program.

Never married and with no kids, the former leader of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin never lost an election, never took contributions from political committees or special interest groups.

“I’ve spent my entire life enhancing the economy of Wisconsin,” Kohl said in that 1988 interview.

One of his big interests: buying and saving the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 for, at the time, an unheard-of $18 million. He sold the team in 2014 for $550 million, donating $100 million of it toward building the new arena to help once again keep the team from ever leaving his hometown.

Herb Kohl’s spirit to give lives on — his time, his efforts, his millions toward funding hundreds of teachers, students, and various after-school programs at places like the Boys & Girls Club. He led bipartisan support forcing safety locks to be sold with guns. He helped lower the price of prescription drugs, and passed laws for better background checks at nursing homes to help protect seniors. In Washington, he proudly fought for farmers, especially Wisconsin farmers.

“Having safety nets that go to producers, so that when times really get bad, through no fault of their own, they’re not all forced to go under,” Kohl said in a 2007 interview with PBS Wisconsin.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his alma mater, Kohl’s $25 million donation helped build the $76 million Kohl Center. In a 2023 photo taken at the university’s La Follette School of Public Affairs, which he funded with the largest donation ever, Herb Kohl smiles doing what he might have loved doing most: giving.

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