He waited tables to help pay for college. It was the customers he served who helped change his life.

No one knows for sure how Lost Nation, Iowa, got its name. Did it have something to do with the French settlers, or the Indian tribe that inhabited the region for generations before?

What Norm Wulf can say is that his hometown, which even today has a population of fewer than 500, was remote and rural.

Norm was 8 years old when “the lights came on.” Before his family had electricity, they’d bury a wooden box filled with perishables in the ground of a cedar grove during summer months, and hang another box in the kitchen window in winter.

It was winter Norm remembers most: Waking at
5 a.m. in a stone cold house, heading out to a frosty barn to milk the cows, getting hit in the head by their frozen tails or bloodied by their chapped, cracked teats.

“I knew early on I didn’t want to be a farmer,” he said. At the Chicago stockyards, where his father would take hogs to sell, it was the buyers who decided how much the product was worth. “I didn’t want to be totally at someone else’s mercy.”

So when a recruiter saw Norm play basketball at his high school—and offered him a scholarship at Iowa Wesleyan—-Norm jumped at the chance.

He still needed work to pay the bills, and he found it at the fanciest hotel and restaurant in his college town. The owner was a dapper fellow, whose immaculately smooth white hair and crisp suits impressed Norm right away. He put Norm to work in the dining room, bussing the yellow formica tabletops and serving plates piled high with sandwiches, meat and potatoes.

A regular in the dining room gave Norm a few of his own white dress shirts so that Norm would look a little more professional in his new role.

This was how Norm got to know the movers and shakers in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

“I would say that job was the most significant part of my college career,” he said.

He watched how these men interacted, listened to their stories, and talked with them about politics.

“I had always been interested in politics, but it’s not something we talked about in my house,” he said. “I remember the summer of 1952, when the corn was high and things were a little quieter at home, listening to the 1952 Republican convention on the radio. It was so exciting.”

These men wanted to hear what Norm had to say. They encouraged him to run for student council president. He did, and he won.

And during his senior year, one of the restaurant regulars, a judge, told Norm he would help him get into law school.

That’s how Norm ended up at the University of Iowa—writing for the law review, performing in the school’s top 10 percent—and then, at a job on Wall Street, in a corporate law firm.

He was a long way from Lost Nation.

Still, the values that had been nurtured in that sleepy cornfield held fast. So when he received a letter from the draft board telling him that he was up for service—the Vietnam War was raging—he walked away from New York City.

“Going to Canada or trying to get out of this in some way, it never crossed my mind,” he said. “My two older brothers had been in the military. My uncle was in World War II. This was just something one did.”

His commission in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) began in Newport, Rhode Island, and then took him to Pensacola, Florida. He defended and prosecuted court-martial cases and provided legal assistance to Navy personnel. He defended an officer who borrowed a friend’s car and then drove drunk and wrapped it around a tree, killing his passenger.

While Norm met with the young man recuperating in the military hospital, he got to know the man’s nurse, a young woman named Nancy.

A year later the two were engaged.

They married during an R & R break for them both; Nancy had been assigned to a medical unit in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Norm was in Vietnam by now. It was during a lunch hour at the base on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, that they officially tied the knot, before heading back to their respective posts a world away.

Norm eventually received another degree, in international ocean law, and he applied that at the Pentagon, the National Science Foundation, and the State Department before President Clinton appointed him special representative for nuclear non-proliferation. Some of his more prominent duties included leading the first delegation of American officials to North Korea’s nuclear facilities and leading delegations dealing with nuclear non-proliferation.

All of his jobs have been about understanding and listening to people.

Norm credits that Mount Pleasant dining room with helping him first develop that skill.

“It changed my life,” he said.