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Mourners at downtown Milwaukee memorial service reminisce about former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl

People attend a memorial service for former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash
People attend a memorial service for former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, Friday, Jan. 12, 2024, at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

A few hundred people braved a blizzard to attend a memorial service Friday afternoon for former Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, who passed away last month at the age of 88.

Speakers at Friday's event at Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee suggested that Kohl might have liked the snow, wind, and modest turnout.

Master of Ceremonies Jim Paschke told the audience, "I think Sen. Kohl probably ordered our weather today, so that fewer people would fawn over him."

Paschke and others painted a picture of the Milwaukee-born Kohl as a modest man, son of immigrant parents, who graduated from UW-Madison, and then working with his siblings, did very well financially helping expand Kohl's Food Stores and Kohl's Department Stores before Herb Kohl went on to two more very public careers.

One of those was representing Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate for four terms.

David Axelrod is a former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama. Axelrod told the audience he first met Kohl back in 1985, when Kohl was considering a Senate bid, a bid Kohl later delayed until there was an open seat in 1988.

Recalling their first meeting at a diner in Kenosha, Axelrod said, "I still remember my first impression—boy, this dude isn't from central casting."

He continued, "You know, he was a little wisp of a guy, follicly challenged, which is not a bad thing by the way — was not a stentorian speaker."

But Axelrod said he quickly realized the Democrat had a passion for politics and was "well-motivated." Axelrod praised Kohl's work as a U.S. Senator, "who did it in his own way."

A few years before Kohl started in the Senate, he purchased the Milwaukee Bucks, a move generally regarded as key to keeping the National Basketball Association franchise in Milwaukee. When Kohl sold the Bucks in 2014, he insisted the new owners pledge to keep the team here, and Kohl donated $100 million to help build Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play home games.

Kohl's lifelong friend, Allan (Bud) Selig, who was the first owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and later became Commissioner of Major League Baseball, told the audience that as commissioner, he dealt with many owners who, "conducted frenetic searches to move their teams to greener pastures."

Not Kohl, said Selig: "Here you had Herb, whose loyalty to his city and state, was not only beyond reproach, it was aberrational."

Dan Kohl, Herb Kohl's nephew, spoke for the Kohl family. Dan Kohl said his uncle was pleased to have close connections to many people.

"Herb never married. He never had children. But he had multiple families. Everyone who worked at Kohl's Food Stores, you were his family. Everyone who worked for the Bucks, you were Herb's family. Everyone who worked for my uncle in the Senate, you were his family too."

JoAnn Anton, a longtime Kohl aide and Director of Giving for Herb Kohl Philanthropies, said Kohl's legacy will live on through that charitable foundation, "which will always, always, honor his desire to bring joy to the people of the state he loved and called home, his entire life," Anton said.

She then announced an unspecified amount of money from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation will "fully fund" a series of teachers' projects. A foundation press release says the amount is $600,000.