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Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

The Journey From Bench to Bellhop

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Jason Ilstrup, housekeeping manager of the Fifth Ward’s Iron Horse Hotel, was a Peace Corps leader in Niger, became a lawyer and worked in Congress before abandoning his legal career to become a bellhop. He describes his international service work, his decision to leave politics and how the Iron Horse lets him live his passion.

Were you just a young idealist in the Peace Corps, or did you have a larger design?


Design is a strong word (laughs). After college, I was very interested in traveling. My goal was to be abroad and work in developing countries, Africa in particular. I thought the Peace Corps was a great way to learn about the world, learn new languages and learn about myself.

After law school, you started working for Congress. What was your experience?


I worked for Congressmen Martin Sabo and Barney Frank and loved it. When Sabo retired, I moved to Madison with my wife, and worked for Rep. Tom Nelson, who is now the majority leader in Wisconsin. He is great, someone who will work tirelessly for constituents, but we didn’t always see eye to eye on the “work-life balance.”

Do you think that the political climate is more divisive now than it was historically?

Yes. I don’t like pessimism, and I think that politics is ravished by pessimism. You have to prove the positive instead of proving the negative. People find holes instead of finding a solution. I think Obama is doing well, but, clearly, his challenge is the negativity.

Did you know what you were getting into or did you leave because of this shift?

A little of both. It looks like something glamorous on TV, but it’s not. There is a lot of back-stabbing going on. And how bills get made is not very pretty. I am a very optimistic guy and it is disheartening to get knocked down. I didn’t feel like I was helping people anymore. I lost my passion a little bit, which is sad.

What precipitated your transition to service and hospitality?


I am a people-person through and through. I thought, “What can I do that involves the community and working with people?” And then I started in the hotel business. Ultimately, I would love to own my own hotel.

What are the similarities between hospitality and politics?


You are working with people. You are dealing with individuals’ needs. Before, I helped with constituent services, legislative action; now I work on making sure people are comfortable. My goal is still to make people happy.

Do you still feel like a politician sometimes?


Certainly. I am still a negotiator. And everyone still has to leave happy.

Your wife is a prosecutor in Milwaukee County—does the pillow talk translate?


I can’t really say it’s the same. She comes home talking about horrible crimes and I say, “You know, this person was missing a washcloth and they were really upset.” It doesn’t quite translate (laughs), but we both love our jobs, and that is the key. We are both trying to help people—but in very different ways.

You left a prestigious career in the middle of a downtrodden economy. How do you explain this to people who see the service industry as a stepping-off point?


Young people used to go off and get big degrees to do things they thought were very important. A lot of people do service-industry work while they are in school, and here I am coming back to it. I would just say, I have all the formal education I will ever need, but at some point you have to focus on what is actually in front of you.