Herb Kohl, former US senator and Bucks owner, dies at age 88

He served in the Senate for 24 years.

December 27, 2023, 7:16 PM

Former Democratic U.S. Senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl has died at age 88, according to Herb Kohl Philanthropies, his nonprofit organization.

Kohl passed following a brief illness, his foundation announced on Wednesday.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Kohl will be remembered as a popular figure in the state, purchasing the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team in 1985 when it was at risk of being sold and moved to another city.

In this Nov. 8, 2011, file photo, Sen. Herb Kohl attends a luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE

He made a promise to the fans that the team would never leave Wisconsin and fulfilled that promise when it came time to sell the team, donating $100 million to help build a new arena for the community.

In this March 19, 2008, file photo, Milwaukee Bucks owner Sen. Herb Kohl speaks at a news conference in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash/AP, FILE

In 1988, Kohl decided to run for the Senate following the announcement that Sen. William Proxmire was retiring, defeating Republican candidate, then-state Sen. Susan Engeleiter.

He won reelection in 1994, 2000 and 2006, serving 24 years.

Born to parents who immigrated to Milwaukee from Poland and Russia, Kohl “never took the good fortune of his life for granted,” his obituary said.

His dad opened a corner market store in 1927 beneath their family apartment years before Kohl was born. Nearly 20 years later, in 1945, when Kohl was 11, he cut the ribbon at his family’s first supermarket. In 1962, the family opened the first Kohl’s department store.

Herb became president of Kohl’s Corporation in 1970, which had 50 supermarkets and multiple department stores.

He credited much of his success to working under his father.

“He gave me permission to make mistakes," Kohl said. "I made a lot of them but each time, my father would just ask: ‘What did you learn from this? Are you going to make the same mistake again?’ Learning from mistakes was an important part of taking risks and being successful.”

Kohl loved his job and traveled the state, visiting stores, bagging groceries and conducting many job interviews himself. He made it a point to talk to employees in every job -- from the bakery to the meat department to the checkout aisle. He knew virtually every employee by their first names and usually also something about their families.

"Treating his employees like family was one of the hallmarks of Herb Kohl’s life," his foundation said in his obit.

Kohl’s political involvement leading up to his decision to run for Senate had been limited. He had been chairman of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party from 1975 to 1977, but never held office.

When opponents accused him of trying to buy his Senate seat, Kohl ran on the slogan, "Nobody's Senator but Yours."

He famously kicked off his campaign by saying, "The important thing is that when the campaign is over, I will owe nothing to anybody but the people of Wisconsin.”

Kohl won a hard-fought Democratic primary and general election in 1988 and held onto the seat without a serious challenge for 24 years.

In this April 28, 2009, file photo, Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, holds a hearing in Washington, D.C.
Kristoffer Tripplaar/MCT via TNS via Getty Images, FILE

When Kohl announced in 2012 that he would not seek a fifth term, President Barack Obama said, “Herb’s invaluable perspective as the long-time head of a family-owned business made him an unwavering voice for working families, small business owners, and seniors.”

Over the years, Kohl made substantial donations, including $25 million to the Kohl Center Arena at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which was then the largest single donation in the school’s history.

The Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, founded in 1990, has provided more than $34 million in grants and scholarships to Wisconsin students, teachers and schools.

ABC News' Jessica Gorman contributed to this report.

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