COLUMBIANA, Ala.—When I come to this town I get a little emotional. It just does something to me.

Maybe it’s the American flags hanging from every porch, shop, and shed. Or it could be the fried food at the Exxon station. Or maybe it’s because I have friends here.

The town sits smack-dab in the geographic center of the state. The first settlers started migrating here in 1792. And these were very tough people.

They came in wagons, on horseback, traveling across sloping hills, over jagged mountains, fording streams, and clearing paths with hatchets. They came from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Some of these people were slap crazy.

To give you an example, here’s a story a guy told me:

In 1826 there were heated debates about where the Shelby County seat would be. Montevallo was pushing hard for it. Columbiana was pushing even harder.

When Columiana won, people in this town got so hyped up with excitement they bored huge holes into hundred-foot pine trees, filled each crevice with gunpowder, and lit them on fire.

What followed was a series of hellish blasts and explosions ringing throughout Alabama’s hillsides like artillery. I’m sure there was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.

You don’t even want to know what these people did to you if you were late on your property taxes.

But anyway, after the townspeople had blown up enough trees to satisfy themselves, they got busy building this cute town.

It really is a gem. The old buildings. The painted advertisements on aged brick walls. The way people honk and wave at each other when they recognize that they are, in fact, first cousins.

And, oh, the churches.

You’ve never seen churches like you’ll see in these parts. There are tons of them. And when I say “tons,” I mean that there are some 200 churches in a few-minute radius.

Church has always been a huge deal here. An old-timer told me that before the original settlers here erected church buildings, they would meet in the woods, or in meadows, on farmland, or beneath clear skies.

He also told me that when competent preachers couldn’t be found among small congregations, sometimes elderly women would serve as the church leaders. These fiery rural women were known to deliver weekly sermons with snuff wads tucked in their lower lips.

Today, you’ll see modest one-story meeting houses scattered all over the countryside. Tall steeples on tin rooftops, with double doors flung open as if to say, “You’re welcome here, friend.”

But if you ask me, Columbiana’s masterstroke is the courthouse. The dazzling, limestone, Beaux-Arts courthouse sits plopped right on Main Street. It is a gracious structure, adorned with copper-colored roofing, cupolas, a clock tower, and fat Corinthian-style columns supporting a monstrous Grecian portico.

The thing took two years to build. And since 1906, its majesty has gone unrivaled by anything around for miles.

Sometimes you see motorists on Main Street riding by the courthouse, nearly wrecking their vehicles trying to take dangerous smartphone photos of the building.

I am one such motorist.

It was also here, in this town, where one of God’s favorite librarians sat at a Shelby County High School office desk, amidst stacks of overdue books and loose-leaf paperwork, and went on to change my life.

I was a fledgling writer when I first got an email from him. He was a large guy with a husky white beard and a rosy face like a sunburned cherub.

It was our mutual love of “The Andy Griffith Show” that brought us together. I have never met anyone who loved the show more.

He believed in my writing. Maybe even more than I did. He would share my work with anyone who came in earshot, force feeding my stuff to his coworkers, students, friends, and family members until they were sick of me.

To say this guy gave me a shot in the arm would be an understatement. He gave me a new pair of arms.

When he retired, I attended his farewell party. It was held in the library of the high school. I showed up early and felt very out of place.

I was a foreigner in the room, I didn’t belong in Shelby County High School any more than I belonged in Buckingham Palace. I was a stranger in this town. I felt like a fool.

But there I was, eating cake and drinking sweet tea like I belonged.

It was a marvelous party. Standing room only. People had come from as far away as Tennessee to see him off and tell him how special he was.

Former students wept through smiles, telling old stories. Coworkers raised SOLO cups in his honor. There was a little money tree you could attach dollar bills to. Also, pound cake. Lots of pound cake.

When they asked what he was going to do in his newfound retirement, he said he was finally going to put time aside and write a book. And everyone applauded him. I applauded him. It was a great day.

He died only weeks later.

The news of his passing hit me so hard I couldn’t see for weeks. Mainly, because of something he said to me before I left that get-together. Something I will never forget.

He gave me a hug. His python arms wrapped around me until I disappeared into his girth. He said with a face-scrunching smile, “You’ve always got a home here in Columbiana, Sean.”

Maybe that’s why I get a little emotional when I’m in town.


  1. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - September 25, 2020 7:19 am

    I have friends there.
    I once cleaned every window on the outside of that courthouse. Well, me & two others. One a professional window cleaner that begged me & the other guy to give up a weekend. It payed well.
    I hate your thing there wasn’t public.

  2. Earle Wright - September 25, 2020 10:52 am

    I always like stories about individuals who have strongly influenced others. Your description of this man brought a distinct and vivid image to mind, and I could see him speaking those words to you. Many people die soon after their major careers are finished, and I can’t help but wonder if God has taken them to their reward for having completed the work they were intended to do. Yet another great story.

  3. Jane Elder - September 25, 2020 11:21 am

    Wonderful description of this place. Helps me escape from my current life and imagine those churches and that courthouse.

  4. Sean Hollis - September 25, 2020 11:44 am

    I got to see you live in Columbiana the last time you were here. i watched you on youtube last night and loved every minute. Can’t wait till I can see you live again in your natural element playing off of an appreciative crowd.

  5. Helen De Prima - September 25, 2020 11:53 am

    Lovely profile of your mentor. Mine was my 11th and 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Kirwan. She made us diagram the Gettysburg Address.

  6. Rebecca McKenzie - September 25, 2020 12:03 pm

    Thank you Sean. Miss Steve so much and so happy he introduced me to you. You are a gem.

  7. Harriet - September 25, 2020 12:16 pm

    That ending was special to hear. It reminded me of my math teacher. I think of her every day still.

  8. Jane Hampton - September 25, 2020 12:20 pm

    Enjoyed hearing you last night, Sean. Steve was a special guy and Columbiana is a wonderful town. Thank you.

  9. Kathy - September 25, 2020 12:50 pm

    We thought we had more time with him. His death struck us all hard. By the way, you truly belonged at that party. You are his friend.

  10. Jo Ann - September 25, 2020 1:02 pm

    Thank you for another lovely story of a friend. I loved the description of the town, makes a person want to visit.

  11. Kitty Preziosi - September 25, 2020 1:13 pm

    I am originally from Alabama so your words really resonate with me!

    Your post in late August “In a World Where you Can be Anything, be Kind” inspired me and a friend to start a movement in Florida, the Kindness Project. We continue to be inspired by you in our work to nurture love not hate, kindness not despair, compassion not disinterest, respect not disdain Thank you so much!

  12. Robert M Brenner - September 25, 2020 1:22 pm

    What a sweet remembrance of another human being! He had to be special if he loved “The Andy Giffith Show”! ❤️

  13. Lindsay L Warren - September 25, 2020 1:40 pm

    My great grandfather, L. B. Riddle, was Probate Judge in Shelby County many years ago. He had a house about two blocks away from the old Courthouse. I believe his picture still hangs in that Courthouse somewhere. I have many great memories of Columbiana – Thanksgivings, Christmases, and summers. You are correct. Columbiana is a special town!

  14. Jan - September 25, 2020 1:56 pm

    As you frequently do, you have outdone yourself. What a wonderful tribute to a town and to a person who could and did change people’s lives. Thank you!

  15. Sharon - September 25, 2020 3:01 pm

    Your description of little old ladies with snuff in their lips reminded me of my husband’s paternal grandmother, Ercelle. By the way, my husband’s family is from Columbiana.

  16. Jan - September 25, 2020 3:29 pm

    My Grandfather was Mayor of Columbiana in the 60’s. My Dad grew up there. It is a beautiful little town. The “old” guard is almost gone, but wherever they are they tell stories form Columbiana growing up days. Loved this ode to Columbiana.

  17. Linda Moon - September 25, 2020 4:08 pm

    Did you hear my guy and me clapping for you last night? Lord God, we miss your LIVE events. And, lest you think I’m taking The Lord’s Name In Vain here, I’m not. Someone I knew and loved birthed and raised a dozen children: 6 boys, 6 girls. I learned that when she frequently said “Lord God” that she needed him right then. I’m grateful to the librarian who knew a thing or two about fledging writers, Author. So, maybe the Lord God will open up a way to bring you back to be LIVE in front of a LIVE audience soon. We’ll be there.

  18. Bonnie Stewart - September 25, 2020 5:36 pm

    I love the way you make me feel as if I am traveling with you.

  19. MAM - September 25, 2020 6:10 pm

    Excellent homage to your friend, who obviously was a fine man! Glad he encouraged your writing. Because of Steve, we all benefit.

  20. Betsy Montgomery - September 25, 2020 6:29 pm

    Our love and admiration of Steve as a friend and fellow Shelby County librarian, lives on. He was so very special. ❤️

  21. Dru Brown - September 26, 2020 6:09 am

    I loved going through Columbiana on the way to Tuscaloosa during college. Thanks for the historical notes. Evidently God put you there for an important reason.

  22. Bob - September 26, 2020 1:51 pm

    In 1792 when the first “settlers” arrived in central Alabama, there were already settlers living there. Andrew Jackson had them moved off on the Trail of Tears to make room for the interlopers.

  23. Christina - September 26, 2020 4:03 pm

    What a gift it is to be seen, embraced and to belong. And you have done a beautiful tribute to him. Btw, didn’t know you played the piano like that. So fun watching y’all on screen. Would you come to California?

  24. Karen Korb - October 26, 2020 11:07 pm

    I too love Columbiana. Great read. I enjoyed it.

  25. Santa Mike - October 27, 2020 4:32 pm

    I love you sentimate, in a world where you can be anything, be kind. It says it all.


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