‘Sean of the South’ celebrates the good, the broken, the angels among us
By Allison Law
After the potluck dinner in the fellowship hall and the speech in the sanctuary, Sean Dietrich greets his fans in the vestibule of this church in southeast Alabama. Those who came to hear him are eager to give him a hug, snap a photo and tell him what his writings have meant to them. He’s one of them, and his words touch their hearts, they tell him. He considers those mighty compliments.
He’s in his element. He’d stay all night and chat with them, if they’d stick around that long.
Dietrich is better known as “Sean of the South,” the name of his blog and part of the title of four of his books. His stories touch on hope, goodness, redemption and kindness. Many relate an appreciation for the slower, sweeter pace of Southern life in the towns and farming communities his readers call home.
The columns that seem to resonate the most are the ones that celebrate the everyday heroes, who perform miracles big and small with no thought of reward; the ones that relate the heartbreaking stories of the angels who walk among us; and the ones that highlight the sometimes split-second decisions and seemingly small events in our lives, which lead us on journeys we could never have imagined.
Dietrich’s dad was a steelworker, and the family moved around – Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, North Carolina. But as a teenager, home became the Florida panhandle, where he and his wife Jamie live today.
But he says he identifies more with the people in Alabama than Florida. Jamie is from Brewton, and when they married more than 15 years ago everybody in the town welcomed him into the fold. The logo for his blog includes a drawing of the state of Alabama, and the blog name itself is a play on the old Alabama tune, “Song of the South.”
Growing up was tough. After his father’s suicide when he was 12, he quit school to help support his mom and younger sister. He loved music, a talent he started nurturing early on. He plays piano, guitar and accordion, and plays in several bands today.
But he dreamed of being a writer. He would play music at night, often spending weekends at places in the Panhandle where he could camp on the cheap while playing a gig. During his down time, he started writing a novel. “I finished my novel, and I thought, this is fun. I’m gonna do this, I’m going to write a column. I’d always wanted to be a columnist.”
He suffered through some rejections, but they redirected his life and his work. He wanted to be a humorist, and there are elements of humor in some of his columns. But his style evolved into telling more of his story, which got a good response, and then the stories of others he met along the way.
Becoming a storyteller
And he meets lots of folks. He’s naturally talkative, but is able to draw people out; they feel safe with him. “My mother is a lot like this – somebody will buddy up to her, telling her their story. I thought it was annoying when I was child, because she would sit there and listen, and ask them questions to keep them going, and I hated it.”
One night, he and Jamie went out for their anniversary, and a fellow at the bar sidled up to him and shared an incredible story of loss. He and Jamie talked to the man for about an hour.
“I realized that night, I’m just like my mother. Put me in a bar, and they’re going to find me. I’m grateful for that now. I’m learning to listen more than I ever have before in my life, just because of what I do. I want to say that I notice things that were there all along, that I didn’t notice before.”
If he got his natural magnetism from his mom, he got his love of storytelling from his dad. “My father was a storyteller – I grew to love those stories. (One day) he told me I might be a storyteller too. A storyteller is someone who does not judge, who just observes.”
‘Where the people are’
The columns and books have paved an unexpected but welcome career path for Dietrich. He’s become a much-requested public speaker all over the South. He loves the chance to interact with people – to hug necks, to hear memories, and bring a little light into lives of those who could use some.
They tell him the details of their lives – sad, hopeful, sometimes humorous, always heartfelt – and he’s eager to hear them.
“If (someone) were to follow me around for a week, they’d say, you look like you’ve hit rock bottom. You’re speaking at the rest home, or you’re speaking at the high school. This is not glamorous stuff. These are small towns. But I love it. That’s where the people are, you know?”
Sean and Jamie are very close; his favorite column, he says, is the one called “Baker.” Jamie had a medical scare and the two were on their way back home from UAB. They stopped at the Gator Cafe in Baker, Fla., after the doctor called with good news. “It was one of the best days of my life,” he recalls, “and writing about it was a special experience. I wrote it in about 10 minutes, and hardly even edited it.”
Jamie quit working as a private chef to travel with him and handle his scheduling. The two seem genuinely happy to spend their time together, often on the road, meeting strangers who instantly become family.
“I feel like these are the best years of our life, until next year,” Sean says. For many years, he says he was plagued by self-doubt and a lack of confidence. He credits Jamie with having faith in his talent.
Jamie is equally happy to witness his growth and success. “I certainly feel blessed to be on this journey. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it’s fun, and we’re enjoying it. We’re meeting so many real people, so many incredible people.”