Kings of Sherman Park
For Herb Kohl and Bud Selig, their Milwaukee childhood was just the start of a lifetime of banter, bonding, and making it big.
There must have been something in the water at the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity house. Or at the Quisling Terrace apartment complex. Or at a dingy house on Gorham with a forgettable address. Whatever it was made a pair of roommates two of the most powerful men in Wisconsin. It’s been fifty-nine years since former U.S. Senator Herbert “Herb” Kohl ’56 and Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Allan “Bud” Selig ’56 graduated from UW-Madison. But wrangle their post-professional schedules and put them in the same room, and it’s as if no time has passed.
Kohl arrives soundlessly in the photo studio. He stops in the doorway as soon as he sees Selig and gets a fierce glimmer in his eyes.
“He has a whole kingdom in Arizona,” Kohl says, shaking a finger in Selig’s direction. “If you ever saw it, you’d be so impressed. It has a moat.” But does it have a drawbridge? “Yes,” Kohl confirms, deadpan.
Selig rolls his eyes, then releases a deep laugh: “You see? He didn’t even hesitate!” The two run with their imagined scenario. According to Selig, “very few get in” to his kingdom. Kohl’s disgruntled snort suggests he is not one of them.
Kohl’s and Selig’s lives have run in tandem since childhood. They grew up two hundred feet from each other in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. They walked to school together every day, from elementary school through high school. “Then we just moved to Madison,” Selig recalls.
On campus, they became Pi Lambda Phi fraternity brothers. Both went on to own Milwaukee’s two biggest sports teams: Kohl bought the Bucks in 1985 and Selig purchased the Brewers in 1970. Kohl served as a Wisconsin senator from 1989 through 2012, and the longtime philanthropist gave a major gift that helped to fund construction of the Kohl Center on campus. After serving as acting commissioner of Major League Baseball for six years, Selig guided the national pastime as commissioner from 1998 to 2015. He has endowed a chair in the history of sport and society at UW-Madison, and has made a gift to the Athletic Department’s new student athlete performance facility, which includes a welcome center named the Bud Selig Hall of Champions.
Now, Selig and Kohl are each being honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award. Since 1936, the Wisconsin Alumni Association has presented this award to UW graduates whose professional and philanthropic achievements embody the Wisconsin Idea.
For Kohl, that principle is multifaceted. “It’s excellence. It’s exposure to all imaginable ideas, pursuits, thoughts, and subjects. It’s developing an open mind,” he explains. “Only a great university can do that.”
“And quite frankly,” Selig adds, “there’s no other way to say it, but you’re damn proud that you went here.”
As the photo shoot wraps up on this cold January afternoon, the men get ready to head to their next meeting. Selig, who hates winter, spends every weekend in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Suzanne. Kohl, on the other hand, wears only a thin windbreaker and baseball cap. He looks at Selig’s shin-length brown overcoat and raises an eyebrow.
“Herb, it’s cold out!” Selig retorts. “This is a winter coat. This is what people wear.”
They prepare to head up Bascom Hill for a visit with Chancellor Rebecca Blank. Kohl is nervous … but not for himself. “Look, I want to ask you a favor, Bud,” Kohl says quietly. He pauses, “Be on your best behavior, will ya?” Selig laughs.
They have about fifteen minutes before their next engagement, and Selig suggests a trip to his office in Humanities so Kohl can see it. The former commissioner intends to teach history in his retirement.
“Can we walk?” Selig asks the entourage. “I’d like to walk.”
“Then walk,” Kohl responds with a shrug. “Take a walk around the lake, and we’ll meet you there.”
Selig shakes his head. Perhaps he’s not the only one who will have to mind his manners.
Chelsea Schlecht ’13 is a writer for On Wisconsin, and maintains that it’s possible to be both a Cubs and a Brewers fan.
Published in the Summer 2015 issue