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Video: Dad paints payback mural for town who helped raise kids

  1. Closed captioning of: Dad paints payback mural for town who helped raise kids

    >>> today's american story with bob dotson comes from a little town with a big fourth of july parade. today we'll pass by something special, a huge thank you to neighbors who helped save a life.

    >> reporter: bussey, iowa, may make you homesick for a place you've probably never been. just 422 people live here. but this small town has made a big difference in don's life.

    >> the whole community helped me raise my kids because i had my hands full being a single dad.

    >> he was in in a terrible accident when his car flipped off and he lay hidden in the under brush for 16 hours. he could not call out or call for help . he had broken his back, neck, and most of the bones in his face.

    >> i thought if all i could do was stand up, i could live with that.

    >> reporter: doctors said he would never walk.

    >> reporter: his dad remembers.

    >> if i can't get relief, i'm going to kill myself. you remember that, don't you?

    >> reporter: the town offered to look after todd , while he tried to prove the doctors wrong.

    >> they believed in me. that means a lot to me.

    >> reporter: he decided to take art classes with some of the money towns people donated to help him design a new life.

    >> you have to kind of reinvent yourself and go along with what capabilities you have and do the best you can.

    >> reporter: the man who struggled to stand for 18 years now dangles from a cherry picker two stories tall. he's painting a picture of all those people who pitched in when he needed them most.

    >> looks like me.

    >> reporter: his father frank, of course, and son luke. luke just graduated from college with the town's help. that's why todd has no problem depicting neighbors not just as they are but as they would like to be.

    >> my hair looks gray. you have to do something about this.

    >> say hello to aunt pauline. life has taken todd to such a dark place , perhaps it is easier for him to see beauty.

    >> why do you suppose something so beautiful grew out of the worst day of your life.

    >> that's what everything looks like to me now. everything is beautiful.

    >> reporter: the fellow with nine steel plates in his body and a fractured fifth vertebra has been painting this gift for 10 painful months.

    >> the more pain you have, the greater the pleasures are in life. they are sweeter.

    >> but he started having second thoughts when his body began to feel like a wasps nest.

    >> todd , are you done?

    >> oh, almost. we still have little things to finish up. clean up drips, pick up your paint, grab a brush.

    >> reporter: he is now, like tom sawyer , he talked these kids into helping him finish.

    >> never knew how to until he took time to show me.

    >> everybody is worried they are not an artist, but most of the time i just make it up as i go.

    >> reporter: as he did with one last touch-up after elmer bussey stopped by to show him the color of a dead soldier's hat. elmer's brother james died in combat during world war ii .

    >> this kid has done more to bring the memory of my brother to history than i ever did.

    >> that's a pretty good feeling. i feel like he deserved that.

    >> reporter: the power of a picture is in the mind of the beholder.

    >> i tried to join the national guard when i was younger. but since i had had a broken neck , they wouldn't accept me. i felt it was my duty to serve.

    >> reporter: the best he could.

    >> i'm never satisfied.

    >> reporter: in todd 's mural, you see america that was, and in this place still is. for "today," bob dotson , nbc news, with an american story in

By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/3/2012 2:34:52 PM ET 2012-07-03T18:34:52

Bussey, Iowa, may make you homesick for a place you’ve probably never been. Just 422 people live there — but this small town has made a big difference in Todd Spaur’s life.

“The whole community helped me raise my three kids,” Spaur explained, “because I had my hands full, being a single dad.”

Two decades ago, Spaur was in a terrible accident. After his car flipped off a highway, he lay trapped for more than 16 hours, hidden by underbrush. He could not call for help or crawl away because he'd broken his back, his neck and most of the bones in his face. “I just wanted to die,” he said.

Doctors told Spaur he would never walk again. “I could only wiggle one toe,” he recalled,  showing me pictures of his battered body. “Doctors put steel rods in my back, so I couldn’t bend. Hooks over the vertebrae to keep my back stiff.”

They were preparing him for life in a wheelchair.

“If I can’t get some relief,” Spaur thought, “I’m going to kill myself.” But neighbors back in Bussey had another idea. They offered to look after Spaur while he tried to prove the doctors wrong.

“It was hard,” he said. “But friends and family believed in me, and that meant a lot. I looked at myself in the mirror and asked the nurse for a comb.”

The first step
Spaur was determined to walk. “Even if all I could do was stand up and drag the lower half of my body, I could live with that."

But he did much more. After many tries, at last he took a step.

“I cried,” Spaur said. “Terrible pain. I was hunched over to where it made walking even harder than it should’ve been. Once (when) I got up doing physical therapy, the rods came loose in my back and poked out. Doctors had to cut them all out and redo the whole thing.”

It was 16 years after his car accident when Spaur finally was able to stand up straight. A slow smile spread across his face. “My doctor’s name was Smucker. He had to be good.”

Bob Dotson
Todd Spaur adds detail to his mural.

Today Spaur can walk with the help of a cane. “I still have a lot of pain, but it’s not agonizing like before.”

So he decided to do something special for all those people who pitched in when he needed them most. The fellow with nine steel plates in his body and a fractured fifth vertebra began dangling from a cherry picker two stories above downtown Bussey, painting a huge mural on the side of an old building.

It depicts a Fourth of July parade, filled with images of family and friends. When I visited Bussey, Spaur had been working on this gift for 10 painful months.

“The more pain you have,” he said, “the greater the pleasures are in life. They’re sweeter.”

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But when his body began to feel like a wasp’s nest, Spaur started having second thoughts. Still, he didn't stop. He had taken art classes with some of the money neighbors donated to help him design a new life, and didn't want to disappoint them.

“You have to reinvent yourself,” he said. “Go on with what capabilities you have. Just do the best you can.”

Making life pretty
Down below, Spaur’s dad, Frank, leaned in to look at his own image on the wall: “Does that look like me?” He turned and mugged for our camera, obviously pleased.

In Todd’s painting, his father leads the parade, driving a tiny red car. Todd’s son, Luke, is right behind. He just graduated from college this spring with the town’s help. That’s why the artist has no problem painting neighbors — not just as they are, but as they would like to be.

Pauline Wilson wandered by on her way to pick up mail at the post office. Up above, Spaur was working on an image of how she looked 35 years ago. 

“Todd,” she shouted. “My hair wasn’t gray! You have to do something about that.”

He did. “I feel like my job is to make things pretty," Spaur said with a smile.

Life once took Todd Spaur to a place so dark that he learned to appreciate beauty. I asked him, “Why do you suppose something so beautiful grew out of the worst day of your life?”

“Well,” he said, “That's what everything looks like to me now.”

He was taking a break, sitting at a picnic table in Bussey's park, when a little girl stopped to ask: “Todd are you done?”

"I'm never satisfied," he answered. But he was close.

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Like Tom Sawyer, Spaur had talked kids into helping him finish. One teenage boy, Trevor Pinegar, said, "I never really knew how to paint, until he actually took time to show me.”

“Everybody’s worried that they’re not an artist,” Spaur chuckled,  wiping paint off his hands. “But most of the time, I just make it up as I go.”

As he did with one last touch-up, after Elmer Bussey stopped by to show him the color of a dead soldier’s hat. Elmer’s brother James died in combat during World War II.

“He never got to come home and be in our Fourth of July parades,” Spaur said, pointing at the mural, “so I put him front and center in this one.”

Bussey was just 15 when his brother marched off to war. Now, old and frail, he stood staring at the soldier on the wall and then nodded at the 50-year-old artist. “This kid’s done more to bring the memory of my brother to history than I ever have.”

Bussey stood there a few minutes more, soaking in the scene Spaur had painted. The power of the picture was in the mind of the beholder.

Finally Spaur touched Bussey’s arm and confided: “I tried to join the National Guard when I was younger, but since had a broken neck, they wouldn't accept me. So, I felt like it was my duty to serve.” The best he could.

In Todd Spaur’s mural, you see an America that was. And this place as it still is. 

If viewers would like to contact Todd Spaur (pronounced “spore”) in Bussey (pronounced BUS-ee), Iowa, here's his contact information:

307 Merrill Street
P.O. Box 93
Bussey, IA 50044

Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .

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