Sean Dietrich grew up amid the pine forests of the Florida Panhandle and says he “found himself” along its shores.
His family moved around when he was a child, but the Panhandle area became home. He, wife Jamie and their two dogs live in Santa Rosa Beach.
Sean has made a career of telling the stories of the people and places he encounters through a daily column, “Sean of the South,” published on his website and Facebook page.
“That’s where my family lived,” he says, pointing out an area on the shores of a Walton County bayou. “It used to be pure sugar pines, longleaf pines. There were old-timers there who remembered when the mail was delivered by boat on the bayou.”
It was here—after his father’s suicide when Sean was 12, after dropping out of school to help support his mother and sister, after a litany of odd jobs and after finally earning his degree at a community college—that Sean began to live the life of his dreams.
He used to visit the Pensacola area to play music, camping at a nearby state park.
“I had finally given up construction work,” Sean says. “I was living the life of a musician and I was writing. It was a dream come true.”
Sean recalls those days he spent writing and nights playing gigs as the time he began to find his voice as a writer.
“When you feel like you’re not just a screw up, then you are in a good place to write,” he says.
Sean determined early on that he wanted his voice to be positive—one that uplifts his audience, reminds them there is good in the world or maybe just makes them smile.
“My goal is to make people feel good. That’s it,” he explains. “It just hit me. I remember thinking, ‘What is it you want to do?’ I realized I just want, however I can, to make them feel good. If they can just feel good for a few moments, that’s it.”
Paying Attention to the Little Things
A talented musician and singer, Sean had a different calling from an early age.
“I wanted to be a newspaper columnist,” Sean says. “I thought that would be the coolest. My literary influence was Lewis Grizzard. I wanted to be in the same vein as Lewis Grizzard or Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. I love a column.”
Sean has been writing daily columns for more than five years. He has a loyal following with readers across the Southeast.
Sean speaks of everyday people leading everyday lives. Some are struggling. Some are quiet heroes. Some are dog lovers.
His stories are of chance meetings at small-town cafes, gas stations and church socials. He marvels at the attractions along two-lane roads and in dusty little towns. And those attractions are not neon lights and tourist sights. Sean sees the people, places, traditions and communities that make these places special.
“The small town really, really touches me,” Sean says. “I just like that. I don’t want it to die. It is, to some degree, but if I write about it, at least it’s still alive for a little while longer.”
Sean says he feels proud of the people he features in his stories.
“When I see somebody who doesn’t seem like they are getting much attention— and I see them and notice what they’re doing and I can write about them—I feel proud,” Sean says. “I see my family in them.”
Earlier this year, Sean paid homage to three linemen who also reminded him of his family. The men were killed in October by a hit-and-run driver while working to restore power in the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael.
“Chipley” is the story of those men.
It begins, “Just outside Chipley, Florida, three wooden crosses stand beside the highway at the intersection of Highway 77 and Talton Drive. I pulled over to look at them.”
Sean and Jamie were driving through the area on their way home. He had seen the roadside memorial, but on this day felt the need to stop and pay his respects.
Serendipitously, a man stopped and shared the story of the three men—“good, good men,” he called them, Sean says. He had known one of them, a local lineman. The other two were from North Carolina, in town to help with recovery.
“I knew I wanted to write about it immediately,” Sean says. “I wrote it before we even got home, in the car. I come from a steelworker family. These guys, linemen, I know are a lot the same way. They have a strong fraternity of guys and they have a strong work ethic that tells them to go when there’s a disaster. It just touched me, seeing that memorial.”
Sean’s story had a profound effect on both those who knew the men and Panhandle residents they had come to help, touching more people than he ever imagined. Through Facebook alone, it was shared 36,000 times and garnered nearly 3,000 comments.
For Sean, hearing from family members of the fallen linemen was an honor.
“It was profound for me,” he says. “I got to hear from their family members who wrote me personally.”
Staying True to His Voice
Through such stories, Sean of the South has become a source of encouragement for his readers, who are hungry to find the good—and often the humor—even in the struggles of everyday life.
Sean has not one ounce of hubris and has no aim to be, as he puts it, “inspirational.”
“That’s not my bag,” he says. “If you find something that inspires you, then great. My goal is to make people feel good.”
He feels good, too. Having found his stride as a columnist, now fields an increasing number of requests for speaking engagements throughout the South and pursuing other writing opportunities.
“Writing is my life,” Sean says. “I write every day.”
In addition to his daily columns, Sean has just finished a novel, to be published in July, and the draft of a memoir.
“I feel lucky,” he says. “I don’t know how you define what I do, really. I don’t want to think that much about it. I don’t want to lose the good old boy that I am.
“If I died now, I feel like I’ve done it all. I never thought I’d be here today, so for me, I don’t know if there’s anything above this. Every day, to me, feels even more like a mountaintop. If it goes any higher, I don’t know. I’m happy right here.”
Sean Dietrich’s columns are published daily on the Sean of the South Facebook page and at his website, www.seandietrich.com. Podcasts are available on that site and the iTunes podcast app.