The studious and passionate Met Council appointee says public service "just sort of found me."
Lakeville City Administrator Steve Mielke received enough 6 a.m. e-mails from Wendy Wulff during her six-plus years on the Lakeville City Council to reach a conclusion: Wulff doesn't sleep much.
Wulff's husband, Dan, begs to differ.
"She sleeps every time we put in a movie," he said.
While this early bird might not catch the end of the DVD, she spends her days determined to keep both eyes open.
"I pay attention to what is going on in the world around me," Wulff said.
That approach has served her well in her career in public service, which took its latest turn in April when Wulff was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to represent the southern portion of Dakota County on the Met Council.
It's not a bad formula for raising three sons, either. Or for coping with the aftereffects of a near-fatal accident that has left her husband permanently disabled. Ninety percent of life is just showing up? Wulff might just provide a perfect example.
"It's like juggling," Wulff said. "If you start out trying to juggle with 10 balls you're going to drop everything and never get it. But life adds a little bit at a time and you just get better and better at it."
When Wulff and her family moved to Lakeville in 1992, she said, getting involved in local government wasn't even in her realm of possibilities.
"It just sort of found me," she said. For that, her neighbors in the neighborhood west of Cedar and north of Dodd will forever be grateful.
In the mid-1990s, when the residents learned of plans for a Kwik Trip to be built along Cedar adjacent to the neighborhood, Wulff emerged as the point person for a neighborhood with concerns.
Wulff represented the neighborhood throughout the planning process and eventually met with the vice president of Kwik Trip. She persuaded him to build across the street, reducing the impact it would have on the neighborhood.
"There were a lot of people in the neighborhood who didn't know what to do," Dan Wulff said. "Wendy, with no experience, learned how to communicate [the residents' concerns]. It was very impressive."
Keith Witte was just moving into the neighborhood when the discussions were taking place and said there was no doubt Wulff's leadership led to the satisfactory conclusion. Witte counts himself among the many neighbors who took on a "we will follow you anywhere" attitude toward Wulff in her work in local government.
Little did Wulff know the experience would change her life. "It showed me you can make a difference," she said.
Two years later, Wulff applied for and was selected for an opening on the Lakeville Planning Commission, where she served seven years before moving on to the City Council in 2003.
Mielke saw Wulff as one of the leaders on the council, with others often following her lead.
"Wendy studies," Mielke said. "She looks at an issue, she listens, she talks. That was a significant strength when she was on the City Council. I learned quite a bit from her."
"I'm just a geek," said Wulff, who grew up in the west metro area and attended the University of Minnesota. "I'm one of those kids who made little models out of clay, pretend cities. I was thinking about planning when I was eight, 10 years old. Apparently I didn't realize there actually were jobs where you could do that because I majored in math in college."
Wulff met her husband while both attended the U. The Wulffs lived in Germany for three years while Dan was in the military. He eventually joined the Minneapolis Police Department, where he rose to lead the bomb squad.
The family's fortunes took another turn in 2005 when Dan was injured by reflective blast waves in a training accident. Because he did not suffer any external injuries, the extent of the damage done was not immediately known.
Dan actually returned to work for a week before severe headaches made it impossible to continue. Before long it was discovered the carotid artery had closed in his head.
"Doctors didn't think he would live," Wulff said.
Dan's brain has been permanently affected. He suffers from memory problems, reduced stamina, sensitivity to light and vision problems. "Some days his brain works, other days he's just too tired and nothing works," Wulff said. "You just never know. You take every day as it comes."
Wulff serves as her husband's caregiver while operating her own Web design business from home, running the household and serving in local government. She rejected the idea of hiring someone to help with Dan's care.
"That wouldn't give Dan a very good quality of life," Wulff said. "I am enough of a penny pincher I can get by with less money rather than sacrifice my family's quality of life."
Wulff said keeping a positive outlook "is something we've both consciously worked on."
"As a cop and a military officer you are taught you can overcome everything," Dan said. "I learned a very difficult lesson with a brain injury that, no matter how hard you try, you just can't fix it. Wendy has seen me through the best and worst of times. She's been unwavering."
Wulff said she has always been family-focused, including the seven years she cared for Dan's dad when he had cancer.
"That's just what families do," she said.
The Wulffs' oldest son, Robert, 21, is in the Army. Ted, 18, is contemplating joining the Navy. Gunnar is 12. Wulff, who said she and her husband have encouraged all three sons to join the military, considers it an important part of being a citizen. Wulff served as a medic and legal specialist in the Army Reserve.
"Our whole family believes being an American requires participation on your part," Wulff said.
Wulff prides herself on being prepared, with a determination to do the right thing. Her straight-talk approach leaves others with no doubt where she stands.
"Wendy's style can be perceived as rough," Mielke said. "She's very compassionate about whatever she is doing, and I can see why some people would view that as something other than [representing] a caring public servant.
"Her strong advocacy for Lakeville oftentimes was viewed as insensitive or somehow not as polished as some politicians can be. She said what was on her mind and where she stood."
Wulff was undaunted when it was suggested her style is not appreciated by some.
"They usually come around eventually," she said with a laugh. "The best conversations I have are with people who are on the far other side of an issue than I am. I don't shy away from controversy, but it's always with the aim of bringing things together to solve the problem."
They key, Wulff said, is to keep moving. That's why missing the end of movies is one problem she has not been able to tame.
Each time it happens, Dan Wulff refuses to tell her how the story ended. There is no mystery when it comes to their own story.
"I've been told the spouse of a person with a brain injury will look at that person and say, 'That looks like the person I fell in love with, but it's not the same person,' " Dan Wulff said. "I know I have changed; not by choice.
"But Wendy has been unbelievably patient with me. So to support her [in her career as a public servant], it is an honor and a privilege to do that."
Dean Spiros • 952-882-9203