He Would Find Beauty In the Simplest Things

November 21, 2001

Where other people saw junk, Michael Russo saw potential.

A lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department, Russo, 44, enjoyed tinkering with things during his time off. "Everything with him was a labor of love," said his wife, Theresa.

Like the Karmann Ghia Volkswagen he bought for $500. It was old, rusted out. It had no floor. "It was like the shell of a car," said his wife. But Russo painstakingly restored it into a beauty of a summer ride. "He would find beauty in the oldest, simplest things," she said.

Russo looked like something of a diamond in the rough himself on the night five years ago when the couple first met at an Irish bar down on the Rockaway peninsula. He was grungy, clad in his post-fire clothes: a flannel shirt and an old, worn hat. But Theresa was drawn in by his eyes, which were "gorgeous," she said, "blue, deep blue."

The two got to talking over a pot of coffee that stretched into four or five more pots as they realized how much they had in common. Both worked in professions where others came first: She was a nurse, he was a firefighter with Squad 1 in Brooklyn and Rescue 5 in Staten Island. Theresa had recently acquired a set of golf clubs, so they made a date for the links. It set a precedent: Russo, ever the athlete, taught her golf, then scuba diving, and the two traveled on numerous ski trips.

They married last year. Their son, Michael Jr. was born the same year on his father's birthday, June 22. This year the family had what Theresa called "a perfect summer" at their home in Smithtown, replete with barbecues and pool parties, where Russo, an able cook, would whip up treats from recipes he found in Bon Appetit magazine. During quieter times, he'd make Theresa pancakes with strawberries that he grew in their backyard, or stroll around the neighborhood with the baby.

Now 17 months, Michael Jr. has his father's devilish grin and boundless energy. Theresa said she waited to have children until she found the right partner, someone who could truly share the responsibility of child rearing. She found that, and more, in Russo. "As a nurse, it was such a change to have someone taking care of me," she said.

Russo was lost in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. His body has not been recovered. His wife is trying to go on and do the things they would have done together, like visiting Russo's parents in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, Michael's favorite holiday.

"I feel that every day, he's here with me and Michael," she said. "That's what gives me solace."

-- Jennifer Smith (Newsday)