Former U.S. senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl dead at 88

 December 29, 2023

Herb Kohl, a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and Kohl's chain of department and grocery stores, who was also a generous philanthropist, has died at the age of 88, according to the Associated Press.

Herb Kohl Philanthropies announced Wednesday that its founder had passed away following an unspecified "brief illness" and said in a statement, "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."

Helped build Kohl's retail franchise

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Kohl was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a pair of poor Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland and grew up working as a bag boy in his father's small grocery store that, over time, grew to become a regional chain with dozens of department and grocery stores and eventually became a nationwide franchise.

After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master's degree in business from Harvard University, Kohl served briefly in the U.S. Army before fully joining the family business alongside brothers Allen and Sidney, and by all accounts was an attentive and involved owner until the franchise was ultimately sold in the late 1970s.

He put his wealth to use in myriad ways, including purchasing the NBA's Bucks franchise and keeping it in Milwaukee, financing a successful career as a U.S. senator from his beloved Wisconsin, and philanthropically giving back to his community through educational scholarships, grants, and donations.

Herb Kohl Philanthropies' director of giving, JoAnne Anton, said in a statement, "Throughout his life, Herb Kohl always put people first -- from his employees and their families to his customers and countless charitable organizations and efforts."

"Herb Kohl Way isn’t just the name of a street in front of the Fiserv Forum," she added of the Bucks' arena he helped finance. "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."

Milwaukee Bucks owner

According to ESPN, Kohl purchased the NBA's Bucks franchise for $18 million in 1985 specifically to keep the team in his hometown of Milwaukee and initially enjoyed success before struggling through the 1990s until it became a winning organization again in the 2000s.

He eventually sold the team in 2014 to a pair of New York businessmen for $550 million, per the Journal-Sentinel, with that deal premised on a promise that the Bucks wouldn't move elsewhere, and Kohl contributed $100 million, matched by the new owners -- plus $250 million from taxpayers, per ESPN -- to construct a new arena that came to be known as the Fiserv Forum.

"Through his purchase of the team, Senator Kohl ensured that the Bucks would stay in Milwaukee and remain an important pillar of the community. There was never any doubt about his extraordinary commitment to the franchise and city that he loved, and his vision and unparalleled financial contribution towards a new arena in Milwaukee will forever be remembered," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who called Kohl a "dear friend," said in a statement. "He will be deeply missed by his NBA family."

In addition, Kohl also donated $25 million to the University of Wisconsin -- the largest private donation ever in the school's history -- to help finance the construction of a basketball and hockey arena that was dubbed the Kohl Center. Interestingly enough, Kohl was also a childhood and lifelong friend of former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

U.S. senator

According to the AP, Kohl became involved in Wisconsin's political scene in the 1970s and even served as chair of the state's Democratic Party from 1975-77 until he financed his own successful campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in 1988 and went on to easily win re-election several times and serve four terms before retiring in 2012.

He was well-liked by his colleagues but had an independent streak and largely focused his efforts on serving his constituents back home in Wisconsin with a particular interest in matters related to agriculture and the dairy industry.

President Joe Biden said in a statement about his former Senate colleague, "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," and added, "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."

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