TODAY | July 04, 2012
>>> 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