FALMOUTH — When Wendy L. Russo was diagnosed with chronic leukemia, she naturally fell into a depression over the incurable form of cancer.

She later told her family and friends that she essentially did nothing but cry for three months.

But eventually, said Russo’s daughter, Amber Donatello, she decided it was time to stop crying and start living again.

“She’s not someone who was dying with cancer, she was living with cancer,” Donatello said of her mother, who died Thursday at age 63, more than a decade after she was diagnosed and five months after doctors told her family to celebrate Christmas early because Russo wasn’t likely to make it to Dec. 25.

When her family told Russo that they thought it would be easier on her to celebrate her favorite holiday ahead of the actual day, she would hear nothing of it.

“She said, ‘No, we’re going to celebrate Christmas on Christmas,’ ” Donatello remembered. “We were all biting our nails, but she made it to Christmas — and then she made it to April.”

That will, Alton Russo said, showed that his mother was “as strong as steel,” but she had a far softer side that the students in her art classes at Longfellow and Lyseth elementary schools and Deering High School saw.

Donatello said her mother was the teacher that students sought out with problems far more difficult than any they would encounter in class. Students who were gay or lesbian went to her to find out how to come out to their parents, Donatello said, or girls who were pregnant and needed to deal with the prospect of becoming a mother before graduating from high school would seek her out for advice.

Students and their parents remembered her long after the school days were over.

“If I went to the grocery store with her, it was like she was a celebrity. You couldn’t go through the grocery store without people stopping her,” Donatello said.

Anthony Russo said he fell for Russo, then Wendy Lawler, the first time he saw her, when she was only 15. When she kissed him on their first date, he said, “that was it. I was never interested in anyone else.”

After they married 42 years ago, they went to Mississippi, where Anthony Russo was stationed in the Navy.

Russo taught art for a couple of years in a Mississippi high school and then handed in her resignation when it looked like the couple was going to be able to return to Maine.

Then Anthony Russo’s assignment was extended and Russo went back to her principal to see if she could get her job back, but found out that a replacement had already been hired.

“He called the school in the next town over and said, ‘Do you have an art program?’ When they said no, he said, ‘You do now,’ ” Donatello said. Russo not only taught for another year, but also was able to design the curriculum.

The couple eventually did get back to Maine and Russo taught art, first in elementary school and then in high school. Although teaching young students was fun, Russo wanted to work with older students who were deeply interested in art, Donatello said.

“She said, ‘I want to work with kids who want to make art their career, to help shape these kids who are passionate about art,’ ” Donatello said.

Donatello said her mother enjoyed helping students develop portfolios and decide which art schools to apply to.

Anthony Russo said he and his wife loved to travel, and Russo would handle all the details of their trips.

“I just stood where she told me,” he said.

His wife liked to take photographs on their trips, he said, and then would come back to Maine and paint the scenes she had shot, usually either in watercolor or pen-and-ink.

“When she couldn’t sleep, that’s what she’d do, go downstairs and paint,” Anthony Russo said.

After she was diagnosed with leukemia — she felt a lump in her throat as she nervously rubbed her neck while listening to the news on Sept. 11, 2001 — doctors suggested to Russo that she not travel — or spend much time around her grandchildren, for that matter. They told her that her weakened immune system left her vulnerable to colds and flus.

But that was a piece of medical advice she found easy to ignore.

“She didn’t care,” Donatello said. “She said, ‘If I get sick from the kids because I give them a big fat kiss, it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to give them a big fat kiss.’ “

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]