By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Dec 27, 2023 at 5:45 PM

Former Senator and former Bucks owner Herb Kohl died Wednesday at the age of 88.

His passing was announced by 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, said. 

Kohl was born in Milwaukee 1935 to immigrant parents, Mary Hiken and Max Kohl. After attending Milwaukee Public Schools' Sherman Elementary, Steuben Junior High and Washington High School, Kohl earned degrees from the UW-Madison and Harvard Business School.

Kohl, who also served in the U.S. Army Reserve, launched a real estate business and investments company before joining the family business of grocery stores. The Kohl's retail empire later grew to include department stores, drug stores and liquor stores.

In addition to serving in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013, Kohl's career in politics also included a two-year stint as chair of the Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977.

Kohl bought the Bucks in 1985. He agreed to sell it to Wes Edens and Marc Lasry in 2014, with the explicit stipulation that the team stay in Milwaukee.

Kohl was also an active philanthropist and among the causes he supported was public education, regularly funding millions of dollars in projects for MPS schoolteachers via Donors Choose.

“Now more than ever, we want to show teachers just how much we appreciate their efforts to provide much-needed supplies and learning opportunities, especially during this incredibly challenging school year,” Kohl said in 2021, when announcing more than $3 million in projects funded for more than 400 Milwaukee teachers.

“We love our teachers, who continue to go above and beyond in caring for Wisconsin’s students. This school year has brought many challenges to teachers and students alike. In these 550 projects, we see persistence, adjustment and creativity. We hope this funding helps advance learning and brings a lot of joy to classrooms – both in person and virtually.”

In 1990, Kohl created the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation Achievement Award Program to give $400,000 in grants to Wisconsin graduating high school seniors, teachers and schools.

To date, that foundation has given nearly $18.5 million to more than 7,670 people, according to the foundation website.

A Kohl gift of $25 million to UW-Madison in 1995 helped build the Kohl Center sports arena. Kohl also made a $100 million donation to the construction of Fiserv Forum.

Two years after selling the Bucks, Kohl donated $1.5 million to fund UW-Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs' Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition, in an effort to encourage public policy research.

Kohl was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.

Nine years later, Forbes magazine named him the richest person in the City of Milwaukee with a net worth estimated between $630 million and $1.5 billion.

As expected, a number of officials are releasing statements on Kohl's passing, including:

Gov. Tony Evers: “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 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.”


Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson tweeted: "In politics, in business, in philanthropy and most importantly, in being a good person, Herb Kohl was a towering figure in Wisconsin history.

"His humbleness and generosity – The Herb Kohl Way, is something to be emulated and reminds us all that no matter one’s personal wealth, it costs nothing to be kind."

Rep. Gwen Moore tweeted: "Herb Kohl was a man of the people, who truly cared for all Wisconsinites. His footprint on our state will remain forever."

State Superintendent of Public Instruction 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.”