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Distinguished Alumni: Herbert “Herb” H. Kohl ’56

Herb Kohl ’56 was a U.S. Senator, a businessman, and a sports titan, but he remains a Badger at his core.

On June 11, 2015, enjoy an evening of discovery, and honor Herbert H. (Herb) Kohl and Allan H. (Bud) Selig as they accept the Wisconsin Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award.

If you know Wisconsin, you know Herb Kohl ’56. Maybe not directly, but perhaps you’ve shopped in one of the 1,162 Kohl’s department stores, of which he served as president for nearly a decade. There’s a chance you’ve rooted for the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, of which Kohl was a longtime owner. Maybe you’ve cheered the Badgers on to victory in UW-Madison’s Kohl Center, opened in 1998 with the help of his $25 million donation. Or, perhaps you were among the Wisconsin residents whom Kohl represented as one of the state’s U.S. senators from 1989 to 2013.

But what you may not know is that Kohl is lefthanded. He stands much taller than his five-foot-seven stature, and he speaks with quiet deliberation. When he arrives back on campus for his On Wisconsin Magazine photo shoot, he stops into meeting rooms to introduce himself and say “Hello.” And those introductions come with a humbling, genuine handshake and smile.

And it is with Kohl’s signature humility that he accepted the 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA) — the highest honor presented by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Since 1936, the award has honored alumni whose professional successes, exemplary service, and university support embody the Wisconsin Idea.

Although Kohl graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, the Milwaukee native began his college career at the University of Michigan. “Two things were true of my first semester,” Kohl explains. “I got very good grades, but I was not happy.” On the day he was supposed to return to Ann Arbor after winter break, Kohl decided not to go. Instead, he had his dormmate ship all of his belongings to Madison.

One person in particular was thrilled to hear Kohl was moving to Madison — childhood neighbor, lifelong friend, and fellow DAA honoree Bud Selig ’56, Major League Baseball’s commissioner emeritus. The two joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity and eventually moved into an apartment on Gorham Street. “It was just the most idyllic, happy four years that you could imagine,” Kohl reflects.

“If you’re lucky, during your four years here, your mind is opened up to unimaginable ideas, thoughts, and aspirations,” Kohl says, and he has ensured that future generations will have similar opportunities for higher education. He keeps close ties to UW-Madison’s School of Education and its La Follette School of Public Affairs. And in 2002, he founded the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which supports teachers and awards $3,000 scholarships to 100 high school graduates each year. “Only a great university can do that — help mold a young person into a young adult who can go out and face the world, and accomplish almost anything they wish.”

Nearly 60 years after graduating, the UW-Madison campus remains one of Kohl’s favorite places in the world. “Wisconsin should be so proud of the University of Wisconsin,” Kohl says admiringly. He believes it is of the utmost importance that the UW and the Wisconsin Idea remain “great.” To accomplish that, Kohl looks to his fellow alumni.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are alumni of this university and are enormously important — both in terms of funding, and in terms of passing on advice and counsel to the next generation,” Kohl states. He calls the University of Wisconsin the crowning jewel of Wisconsin, but he believes it must be continuously watched over. “It takes people who are concerned to keep it at the level that it’s been. And alumni feel that way, very strongly. We should never lose the luster that the University of Wisconsin is.”

For a behind-the-scenes look at Kohl and Selig’s joint photo shoot, check out your Summer 2015 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine.

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