Goodbye Walton County

PAXTON—I am driving a U-Haul through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham where we will begin a new chapter in our lives. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.

I lived in this county (past tense) just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly preacher who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.

It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a titanic abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it.

So he told me to pray for some, and said if my faith was strong, maybe someone would show up to help. Nobody ever did.

Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away.

The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. The same culture I will miss. You have Baptists coming out your ears, and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.

There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.

And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire eighty-year-plus history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.

It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning hogs. The boys and girls basketball program doesn’t just win games, they win seasons, and have players who make it to the WNBA. And don’t even get Paxton started on its baseball.

God, these guys are great. This whole county is great. It was a great place to spend my youth.

Baseball is in the drinking water in these parts. I once counted all the baseball diamonds in the north part of our county and I lost count. I think it was in the hundreds.

Baseball is important to rural hamlets in ways that non-rural people could never understand.

Down in the south end of the county, for example, affluent high-schoolers drive Land Rover Defenders to ball practice and use three-hundred-dollar mitts. In Paxton, you have freckled boys who can throw a four-seam fastball through a moving tire swing from sixty feet, who wear a glove that smells like axle grease. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

There are batting cages sitting next to the Paxton sheriff’s substation trailer. You pass these every time you drive through town. In the summer, you see boys swinging away inside the nets, and nearby deputies reminding them to follow through.

Baseball used to be everything in American culture, but times have changed. Today’s kids go to martial arts classes and learn how to break two-by-fours with their foreheads. Or they play soccer and learn how to cuss in Portuguese. I’m not against such things, it’s just a different world.

Baseball fits with the belief systems of my people. It’s gentle. It’s humble, with no time limit. In baseball, a game can last five hours. You don’t need protective facemasks or shoulder pads. And if a fella wants to scratch his personal regions during a game, so be it. If he gets to the majors one day, he is still free to scratch away on national television. These are the things I like about baseball.

Right now, I am driving through this sleepy village and it’s reminding me of all I’m leaving behind. The water tower stands high, looking down on its ball fields. The town hall is about the size of a Tom Thumb. The town itself is four miles wide. If that.

I once wrote a story about Paxton earlier in my career—if you can call it a career. I’ll never forget it. I was watching the news when the announcer said the Bobcats boys basketball team had played the 1A championship game in Lakeland, and they played like lions. It moved me. I was so dang proud that I stayed up late writing a few hundred words about it.

The funny thing is, I have no vested interest in this school. I don’t know any of the students or teachers. I just lived in the same county, that was all.

If you know me, you know I’m a guy who never attended high school, I dropped out when I was a kid. How exactly I became a writer is a long story. I tell you this simply to say: I’ve never had high-school spirit. In fact, I don’t even know what it feels like. But I enjoy rooting for Paxton.

The next day I got several emails from local people who read the story. I’d never met them, but they wrote sweet messages to me as though I were one of their own. One lady invited me to her grandfather’s birthday. Another invited me to her son’s game. Somebody sent me a Christmas card.

I suppose that’s what you get from a county like this. If I would have written the same story about a school in, say, Atlanta, I wonder if anyone would have cared. Probably not. But small-town people are woven together like fibers in a cotton rag. They support their own, they love hard. And if you’re not careful, they’ll try to get you to clean their garage.

Leaving my home county is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Go Bobcats.


  1. Allyson - March 6, 2022 5:38 am

    Love reading your posts! I live just a couple hours from Birmingham and it’s a great city. I wish you the best in your new home!

  2. Randy Bills - March 6, 2022 6:03 am

    My heart aches for you, Sean, but I hope the new adventures ahead will keep your head and your heart occupied and give you a chance to adjust. Best of luck!

  3. Christina - March 6, 2022 6:16 am

    Sean, you love hard and care deeply, so it makes sense that this hurts. In a way, you’ve knit us all in your stories of kindness no matter where we are on the map. Thanks for opening my eyes to the beauty of the South and its people. I will miss the stories from your beloved county, just like I’m sure it will miss you. Looking forward to your tales of Birmingham and beyond. Best wishes to you and Jamie on this new transition.

  4. Lori Klein - March 6, 2022 6:17 am

    You are a good husband, and a fine Floridian, Sean Dietrich.
    I’m headed home to north Florida for a visit tomorrow, and I just wanted to remind you that is something we displaced Floridians get to do.
    Via con Dios, to both you and Jamie

  5. Billie Padgett - March 6, 2022 6:37 am

    Sean, I know lots of folks are waiting to welcome you to Birmingham. And I know “they say” don’t live your life looking in the rear-view mirror. But, for once, do. We’re back here in Okaloosa and Walton Counties waving “goodbye!” “So long, for now!” “Hurry back, ya hear!” And don’t believe that other saying: “You can’t go home again.” Sure, you can! We’ll leave the welcome mat out for you and Jamie. And the lights will be on! Any time!!

  6. Carol from GA - March 6, 2022 10:10 am

    Reading this I’m saying in my head… “Shane! Shane! Come back Shane! (1953 movie). Only of course using your name! Look at the move as the next chapter in life and we all look forward to reading and learning about Birmingham… from an old soul, country at heart, awesome writer. Safe travels!

  7. Karen Erwin-Brown - March 6, 2022 11:16 am

    Prayers for a soft landing in your new space where people will love you.

  8. Martha - March 6, 2022 11:29 am

    I love reading your posts. I too live in a small town. Not as small as you described but small. Actually I live on an island in northeast Florida. I only lived away once and that was in Lake City for four years. I came back. Hope your new location is just right. Enjoy and be safe.

  9. Anne Lowery - March 6, 2022 12:03 pm

    Exactly why are you moving? I don’t think I have read the “why” in any of your posts. BTW, my daughter,SIL, and sweetest granddaughter live in Vestavia Hills, so I have a vested interest in the place you’re moving to!

    • Sandy Puckett - March 6, 2022 7:54 pm

      His wife has always wanted to live in Birmingham. After her mother passed away last year, it seemed like now was the time.

  10. Ernie in Columbus - March 6, 2022 12:36 pm

    Sweet memories. I think you’ll find a lot of small town people in Birmingham. A WHOLE lot of them. The town isn’t necessarily small, but there are a lot of sweet, small-town people who have come there from all over. Meet them. They’ll bless you.

  11. Joy Jacobs - March 6, 2022 12:43 pm

    Sadly, it is a different world. Thanks for sharing your life and memories. ❤️

  12. Marc Beaver - March 6, 2022 1:17 pm

    Sean…I love this, and I get it. Exactly how I feel about small towns. The heart of America. I never want to forget my hometown either.

  13. marilue - March 6, 2022 1:51 pm

    Another Local leaves….heartbroken. Local since 1961…Walton county. BayLife…Heavy sigh…stay happy, healthy and well! Namaste’…write on.

  14. Mike - March 6, 2022 1:51 pm

    Make a stop at one of the small country stores you
    will pass. Buy a small Coke in a glass bottle and
    a pack of salted peanuts. You know what to do
    from there and raise a toast to new adventures.

  15. Nina - March 6, 2022 2:09 pm

    For years I’ve been following you by Waiting on your wonderful stories, I feel like you’re my brother!
    I cried reading about the loss of Jamey‘s mother and wanted to reach out and just tell both of you how much I’ve enjoyed being around you know when you lived in the same county yes we do.I’ll drive through Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville when I drive up to see the mountains at least making a fall trip each year to see the beautiful changes of the leaves colors! You probably will be busy but if not we’d love to see you Sean and Jamie and buy your lunch on our venture north! You’re the Most talented Renaissance man
    I’ve ever met! Not only are you musically talented, extraordinary author, you are a gifted artist and a damn good preacher! We love you, Nina and Garrett Horn

  16. Helene Mewborn - March 6, 2022 2:13 pm

    Your sad feelings on leaving “your area” in Florida’s panhandle is certainly understandable, Sean.
    But I think you underestimate Atlanta. This city has grown from about 350,000 citizens in the 1950’s to about 6 million today. As a native Atlantan, born at St.Joseph’s Infirmary on then, Ivy Street, I can tell you there is still much “closeness” amongst many Atlantans!

  17. Richard Owen - March 6, 2022 2:35 pm

    I know Paxton basketball and baseball are something as I used to photograph their games when they played Freeport and South Walton High Schools. I remember thinking that the girls’ basketball team must scrimmage against the boys because they came into the schools down south with ATTITUDE!
    The only thing is you left out about the weekly Paxton auction. I spent the day there photographing for the Walton Sun way back when. It was the quintessential small town auction with local grown produce and kitchen goods as well as pigs, chickens, cows and the occasional pheasant. It was a fun day for me as a photographer.
    And, lastly, you and Jaime will always have your memories. I only spent 15 years there in a log cabin on Camp Creek Lake but I still miss the evenings sitting on the porch in the evening looking out over the water.

  18. Stacey Patton Wallace - March 6, 2022 2:48 pm

    Sean, it is so hard to leave your home; it was for me when I moved to LaGrange, Georgia, from Alexander City (“Eleck” City to the locals), AL, my hometown. However, rest easy. Alabama is filled with rural towns, just like Paxton. And those folks are just as sweet and as passionate about their high school teams as Paxton people are. Love to you and Jamie.

  19. Gayle Wilson - March 6, 2022 2:49 pm

    Sean, like a book, sometimes leaving one chapter to start another is hard to do. You know that there will be more to the story, but leaving behind has so many memories, some good/some not so good. But, it is still part of your story. Praying for you and Jamie as you begin this new chapter that will hold many more memories and stories for you to write. God bless you and Jamie.

  20. Kathy - March 6, 2022 2:50 pm

    I hope for new inspiration for you as you live in a new place.

  21. Paul McCutchen - March 6, 2022 4:43 pm

    When I went to college my mom sent me the town newspaper. After I got finished with it I would give it to my roommate. From there it would go thru the dorm. It wasn’t like an Atlanta paper, only a few pages long but since my home town was small I could catch up on everything. Some of my classmates would make fun of my paper but mostly I got compliments because it was people they could keep up with. I knew how the sports in the school was doing, who was in and out of the hospital and a little gossip along the way (initials only). You could also read who was complaining about everything from the city and county government and which streets needed repairing. I am talking about a town in it’s hay day was about 2500 people. Now the school is closed and the population is around 1000. The paper died when the man who owned, was the reporter and saw that it got printed passed away. The local papers in small towns are truly missed.
    Sean, never think your words are not read.

  22. Mike Mathews - March 6, 2022 4:51 pm

    Good luck with the move but understand that you live in football country now.

  23. Betty - March 6, 2022 4:54 pm

    You sure are giving up a lot for Jamie. That is true love.

  24. Patricia Gibson - March 6, 2022 5:12 pm

    I understand Sean and wishing you great memories in your new home.

  25. Anne Arthur - March 6, 2022 5:41 pm

    Shedding a tear for you. I know how hard it is to leave home for good. Heartbreaking.
    Wishing you and Jamie all good things creating a new home and new memories in Bama.

  26. Buddy Caudill - March 6, 2022 6:05 pm

    Once again (just about an everyday occurrence now), I enjoyed reading your column.
    Consider yourself fortunate. Not in the fact you are moving away from your home town, but in the fact that you “have” a home town.
    My dad died when I was seven. A couple of years later, we ended up with a stepdad.
    Apparently, one of his greater talents (other than being an auto mechanic) was drinking alcohol to the excess. In turn, that obsession led to physical abuse of my two brothers and I, and especially our mom.
    Since drinking was a priority, bill paying had to take a position further down the food chain.
    This in turn, led to frequent moving. Sometimes across town. Often though, it led to even moving to another state. The “other state” was even located across the country s few times.
    I’m a senior citizen now. Many times the thought of a “home town” has wandered through my mind. What would that have really been like?
    Your column today illustrated that well.
    Thank you, Sean.
    -Buddy Caudill

  27. Linda Moon - March 6, 2022 6:07 pm

    Leaving home can be very hard. A couple of weeks ago I drove through my old neighborhood. My house…the structure that was my childhood home, is gone…not there, only an empty lot. That was hard to see. But you know what, Sean? I’m here and not there where the past no longer exists. My old memories are full of joy and I still exist after lots of cancers. So, after you’ve had time to settle into your new home would you come help clean out My Guy’s garage? Please. Now, what can I do to bring you some joy?

  28. Will McCarty - March 6, 2022 6:50 pm

    Sean you shoulda turned that Uhaul around and went right back where you came from! When you get to B’ham you will have plenty to write about but it will be all about crime stories! That is about you’ll find plenty of in that town! You won’t have to look far to find it. It’ll find you! Just remember I warned you! You might want to stop at a Bass World Outlet store in Prattville and purchase some personal protection. If you know what I mean! I once took my wife to her doctor at UAB and I had to stop there on my way home to Dothan and purchase a pistol! And I had already left B’ham! Just be careful and I hope you didn’t burn any bridges on the way!

  29. Ann Moody Brooks - March 6, 2022 7:04 pm

    I love this one Sean. I love across the state line in a town smaller than Paxton. Lockhart, Alabama has been my home since my folks moved here in 1955 when I was only a year old. I wouldn’t take anything for growing up in Small Town USA. I feel sorry for all who never experienced it. Thanks for brightening my day, ever day. I still live in the house that I grew up in but I am sad to say that is not the same world that I grew up in. Best of luck in your future endeavors. But I actually don’t believe in luck I believe in Divine Providence. Just another reason that I love living in our small town.

  30. Cathy M - March 6, 2022 7:19 pm

    It’s going to be ok Sean, I promise. It may take a month or maybe several months , but I just know that God led you to walk beside Jaimie and open another chapter. Birmingham is not perfect by any means. It has its flaws . However, there is so much to love here and if you want a small town fix, we are surrounded by many. Once you find a church family , you will build from there. Only problem is that lots of folks may follow you around because you have a fan club here larger than you can imagine. Hang in there. It’s going to be just fine. ❤️🙏🏻

  31. MAM - March 6, 2022 7:48 pm

    My eyes leaked at the end of this one. I’ve moved many times, and each time is hard, but new adventures always await. I still think about my small hometown although I haven’t lived there in almost 60 years, and haven’t been back for 14 years. There was nothing to go back to after my mom died. I was looking forward to our high school reunion, but that got canceled due to the pandemic, so many of my classmates I suspect I will never see again. Yes, sad, but memories still reside in my mind! May God bless your move!

  32. Naomi Storey Storey - March 6, 2022 8:13 pm

    My husband and I moved to Powder Springs, Georgia, in 1981; it’s about 20 miles from downtown Atlanta, and when it was just a farming community then, but now it has every restaurant, shopping center, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was where Custer’s army came through and burned all of the farms. Before we moved here, I lived in Atlanta. I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, but went to Atlanta in 1962, my fiance’s hometown. Atlanta didn’t even have an airport then; you got off the plane on the tarmac and got your luggage. It was a great town to raise my children in. My son played little league baseball. They had all of activities for children (and adults). We went to the railroad museum in Duluth last week. It took us 2 hours to get there and 4 hours to get home. It used to take me 10 minutes to get from our home to downtown Atlanta. A lot of large corporations are moving from California and other northern states because houses cost less, and so does everything else. People in California are paying as much as $300 a month for water. In the 1900s, people were moving to California where the cost of living was less than in the South..

  33. Mike - March 6, 2022 8:47 pm

    I wish you peace and happiness in your new digs.

  34. Gloria - March 6, 2022 9:15 pm

    I have lived in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and now Walton county for the past 47 years. I was born in Alabama but in my heart I am a Florida girl. We have never met but I must admit I keep an eye open in case I see you in Wally World, Publix or Nick’s. I feel very heartbroken that you are leaving and I guess it’s because we always felt proud that you belonged to us Florida folks. Best of luck to you and Jamie on this new chapter of your life.

  35. AlaRedClayGirl - March 6, 2022 9:49 pm

    Wishing you and Jamie much happiness in your new house. While you will miss your old life, home, and friends terribly, I am confident that you will make new friends and memories in Birmingham.

  36. David S Doom - March 6, 2022 10:37 pm

    I lived in a small town that never grew. Every tine someone had a baby, somebody else had left town in the middle of the night.

  37. Vicki Peoples - March 7, 2022 3:18 am

    Welcome to Alabama. My husband and I grew up just north of Birmingham in the small town of Fultondale. Spent both our entire careers working in Birmingham. Now we live in the rural small town of Oneonta. Thank you for portraying the real spirit and dignity of Southern people. We are a unique folk and I love that you capture the real spirit of the South. We’re proud to have you in Alabama.

  38. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 7, 2022 5:22 am

    Just goes to show how much you love your wife.
    Welcome to the magic city neighbor.

  39. Susan Smith - March 7, 2022 12:41 pm

    God speed!

  40. Tom Wallin - March 7, 2022 4:05 pm

    Sean, all of us in Walton County will miss you and are sorry to see you go. But remember, you are welcome anytime and stop by anytime if you are hungry or tired. Have a great time in you new life’s chapter.

  41. Barry Williams - March 7, 2022 5:38 pm

    Reminds me of growing up in a small town in Northern Oklahoma back in the 40’s & 50’s!!!

  42. Rhonda - March 7, 2022 10:09 pm

    I left Southeastern Alabama 50 years ago . I still miss it.

  43. Pat Bice - March 8, 2022 11:17 am

    Love this story!! I can feel your pain. Wishing you and Jamie the best life in B’ham.

  44. Jude - March 18, 2022 2:35 am

    I enjoy your writing and especially about Paxton and Walton County, it’s where I grew up, moved away with school and work but returned when I retired. I was one of the students in the largest ever graduating classes at Paxton. I would like however to let you know that Paxton is not the highest point in Florida, it is just about 3 or so miles at Lakewood. I hope you enjoy your new home and keep writing :-).

  45. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - March 24, 2022 4:49 am


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