With considerable trepidation and an underlying conviction that the effort would fail, Marwin Wrolstad picked up the phone a few weeks ago and asked for help from his local federal regulator.

Wrolstad, vice president for business affairs at Lawrence University here, had reviewed the plans for an experimental heating process, funded by an Energy Department grant, and decided that it wouldn't work.

But like any institution in frigid north-central Wisconsin, Lawrence had a lot of other energy-efficiency plans; Wrolstad wanted to spend $8,000 of the unused grant to insulate some steam lines. To do that, though, the school would have to submit a whole new set of affidavits and application forms--a tedious process that could not be finished before the time period for the grant ran out.

"I figured before I went through all that I'd just try them out," Wrolstad recalled recently. "So I called the Energy Department's regional office down in Argon Ill. , and lo and behold, they were very helpful. They helped us redirect the money. They found a way that didn't take as much red tape. They even granted a 60-day extension right on the phone!

"A couple of years ago, there was no way that could happen. You would have had to certify all sorts of things and fill out all sorts of forms. Now I sense a new mood in that office; they are being cooperative."

If you travel around this neat, busy town of 60,000 and ask people how federal regulation has changed in the year since Ronald Reagan came to Washington, you will hear a few other stories like that one.

Most people here say that, despite the deregulatory hoopla in Washington, there has been almost no tangible change in the government's regulation of their jobs and their lives. But some business people have noticed an intangible change in the attitudes of the regulators they deal with.

"The attitude of the regulators, some of them, is basically different in the past year," says Paul Lenahan, a staff vice president at Kimberly-Clark Corp., the big paper products firm that is based here. "I guess a key word is trust. It used to be they clearly didn't trust you. Now it seems to be different."

For Kimberly-Clark, the difference came through in dramatic fashion last fall when Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors showed up at the firm's Karolton Envelope Co. subsidiary for a full-scale inspection. Under new OSHA rules set last year, the inspectors reviewed the plant's safety records; finding the accident rate lower than industry norms, they waived their own inspection (a two-day drill) and were out the door in an hour.

According to senior administration officials, this change is quite deliberate. In his year-end assessments of the Reagan deregulatory effort, Vice President Bush tells audiences that "one of the biggest changes" in the field is a "new mood" on the part of the regulators--an attitude of cooperation rather than confrontation.

The hero of Lawrence University's happy story, John Montella, a GS11 grants specialist at DOE's office in Argon, says the regulators are as eager as the regulated to avoid government paper work. "We're just so swamped with paper work," Montella says, "that when we can, within the regulations, we try to work it out over the phone."

Montella is not sure, though, that this tendency has increased under Reagan. "I do recall the Lawrence University grant," he says. "I think we probably could have handled that the same way before the Reagan administration , it depends on the case."

The value of a changed attitude is extremely hard to quantify, of course, and that is a key reason that no one in Appleton, not even the people who have noticed the change, will even begin to guess how much money might have been saved in the process.

Back in Washington, the president's chief economic adviser, Murray L. Weidenbaum, has estimated that regulatory "relief" measures saved the nation $6 billion last year. This guess may or may not be right, but there is zero substantiation for it here. Neither the giant firms like Kimberly-Clark nor small operations like WVMS-AM, a 12-person radio station here, can pinpoint even one cent of savings so far.

Meanwhile, people in the Appleton branch of the "regulation industry"--the lawyers, accountants and engineers who help people comply with federal regulations and measure their compliance--say they have felt no impact from the big antiregulatory push in Washington.

"I've seen no changes I can put my finger on," says John Conway, an Applteon-based consultant who helps landlords around the country arrange federally aided housing projects. "There are going to be budget changes, but in the procedures and regulations, the paper work, let me think--no, if there had been any real change, I would know about it, because the regulations are my business. All the rules and the forms are about the same."

Last year, The Washington Post reported on Judy Griffin, a mother of three who was earning $25 per week as a sub-subcontractor to the Environmental Protection Agency. Her job was to operate an air pollution sampling machine on the roof of a firehouse here. Early in 1981, Griffin was worried that Reagan cutbacks would cost her job.

"Well guess what," Griffin says now. "Under Reagan, I've expanded. We added two more test sites because people called in and complained about particulate emissions out of these paper plants. I'm making more than I ever was.

"I've got this friend in Washington," Griffin says. "He . . . keeps calling me and saying 'Don't you know what's happening to regulation? . . . ' And I say, 'Out here, nothing's happening.' "