Nobody’s Senator but Ours

Herb Kohl ’56’s steadfast commitment to finding common ground made him one of the most successful problem-solvers in the U.S. Senate. His nearly compulsive modesty also made him one of the least known.

That is, except to Wisconsinites, who rewarded his earnestness by electing him to four terms from 1989 to 2013. He was, according to his famous campaign slogan, nobody’s senator but theirs.

Former colleagues of Kohl, fellow Democrats and rival Republicans alike, invariably describe him as gracious and honest, quiet but effective, and above all, dedicated to Wisconsin.

A decade after he left office, with Washington consumed by partisanship and gridlock, Kohl’s soft touch in the Senate seems almost archaic. But always an optimist, he continues to work behind the scenes to promote practical solutions to society’s problems. In 2019, he donated a record $10 million to the UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. The gift has already proved transformative for the school, boosting its efforts to train future leaders and advance the public good.

“I think we are seeing all of our greatest fears right now. The chaos, the disregard for truth and facts, the unwillingness to listen and talk to each other,” Kohl says. “But my greatest hope is in the fact that we are still a democracy in the greatest country in the world. I think we can look to appeal to our better angels and come together if we make the effort.”

Kohl, 87, believes he still has a debt to pay off, despite decades of public service and hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic gifts. It’s the debt he feels from having had such good fortune in his life. In his first stump speech in 1988, he noted that wealthy people have a “special responsibility to those who are not as comfortably well off” — those like his parents, European Jewish immigrants who came to America with nothing and built a business empire that set the stage for one of Wisconsin’s most beloved public servants.

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The American Dream

The Kohl family’s American dream began 100 years ago. Kohl’s father, Max, emigrated from Poland, and his mother, Mary, from Russia. They left behind many family members in Europe who later lost their lives to the Holocaust.

Struggling to find their way in Milwaukee, the couple decided to open a corner food market beneath their southside apartment in 1927. Their English was so poor that customers had to point at the items they wanted to purchase.

Max and Mary Kohl often discussed social justice at the dinner table with their kids.

“They always looked forward to the future with optimism and determination,” Kohl says. “And they showed us that your life would be measured far more by what you contribute than by what you have.”

In 1946, at age 11, Kohl cut the ribbon at his family’s first supermarket, which would soon expand to multiple locations. In 1962, the family opened the first Kohl’s department store. It’s now the largest such chain in the United States with more than 1,000 stores.