No one can know how many lives the before-and-after mugshot photos of Penny Wood-Rusterholz may have saved from destructive meth addiction.

In the end, she knew they saved hers and her family’s.

That end came last week. The 55-year-old Pekin woman, who ruefully called herself the “poster girl” depicting the drug’s ravages on billboards that spread across America and Europe, died of cancer, bearing a peaceful smile.

“She looked relieved, relaxed, happy,” said Amy Mallery, the oldest of her five children. “She looked like she was 30 years old again.”

Over her last decade, Wood-Rusterholz earned associate’s degrees in drug counseling and sociology. She became a registered foster mother. She cared for the mentally and physically disabled in a residential home in Pekin, and she tended to customers in a Pekin video gaming outlet that Mallery manages.

She became a rock for her children, 20 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

“The only thing she didn’t teach us is how to live without her,” Mallery said.

That is the true “after” picture of Wood-Rusterholz’s life.

After years of drinking, milder drugs and young motherhood, in 1998 Penny fell deep into methamphetamine, the highly addictive drug one can make at home. She was caught doing that four years later and faced up to 30 years in prison.

Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz chose another course in the case. He offered her probation if she would agree to its strict no-drug terms, and to another unique condition.

Wood-Rusterholz permitted use of two mugshots, one taken in 1998 showing a hardened but healthy 36-year-old woman, and her 2002 version – gaunt, pallid, teeth decayed, hair ratty – to be used in a before-and-after anti-meth poster that probation offices, drug clinics, even schools would display.

“When I first saw the (mugshots), I thought we could use them to try to save lives, not to punish Penny,” Umholtz said.

The poster wouldn’t carry her identity. But in her hometown, that didn’t stay hidden for long.

As the poster spread to billboards across the nation and in England, news media came for interviews. Wood-Rusterholz told them of her regret for the deal.

“I am the butt of jokes,” she said, and an embarrassment to her family, especially her school-age grandkids. She couldn’t find work.

Two years after she made the deal, “At 42 I have to face up to the fact that being a poster girl has not improved my life at all,” she said. “Some days I think prison would been a lot easier.”

Mallery counseled her mother. “I said, ‘Mom, you’re helping (her grandchildren), you’re showing how terrible (meth) is.”

Mallery knows that herself. She, like two of her siblings, also fell to its addiction as Wood-Rusterholz continued fighting hers. Today, her mother’s children are all clean, and her grandchildren remain so, Mallery said.

Wood-Rusterholz continued using meth during her probation term, Mallery said. She was at her boyfriend’s house when a drug raid put her in jail for 85 days and an in-house rehabilitation clinic for 90 more.

Wood-Rusterholz knew another drug arrest, or failure to remain in the clinic, likely meant years in prison.

“She’s very spiritual,” and sought strength from the Lord as she began her rehabilitation, Mallery said. But after several weeks, she asked a friend to come pick her up. She was going to leave.

Mallery recalled the irony in the written account her mother’s friend made of what happened next.

As Wood-Rusterholz waited for her ride, “She said she grabbed a cigarette, went outside to the (clinic’s) smoking area and said God, You better give me a sign. If you don’t, I’m leaving. Please give me one,” the account read.

She looked around, and saw a billboard. Its message read, “If you’re looking for a sign from God, here it is.”

When her friend arrived, Wood-Rusterholz sent her home.

When her treatment ended she returned to Pekin and, with her childrens’ help, began the task of living each day of a new life. She married, took courses at Illinois Central College – “I helped her with the math,” Mallery said – and got a job as a home health care provider at Marigold Estates.

Its residents “loved her,” said Barb Ragain, a co-worker for the several years Wood-Rusterholz worked there. “She cared deeply about them. She treated them like they were her kids.”

Family was on her mind as well when, about eight years ago, Wood-Rusterholz paid a visit to the prosecutor who made her a meth “poster girl.”

“I had no idea those photos would be displayed around the world,” Umholtz said. At the time of the plea deal, “I thought they would give her a great legacy in helping to save lives.”

By then, Wood-Rusterholz realized they had, Umholtz said. They had also given her a priceless gift.

“She said they were the best thing that ever happened to her, not only for her own life, but so she could enjoy the lives of her children and grandchildren,” he said.

Mallery said her mother worked “every day” at Emma’s, one of the gaming parlors she manages, until June 18, a month to the day before she died.

“She said, ‘I need the hours, I’ve got to pay my bills,’” including for the car she’d bought.

In the last days of her mother’s life, Mallery paid the car’s final bills. “I showed her the title. She was so happy!”

In one of the last photos of Wood-Rusterholz, taken several months ago, she is sitting in the vehicle’s driver’s seat, smiling with two fingers raised in a sign of peace.

In the end, that is how she lived.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin