Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

Palatka, Florida—My daddy once told me that when folks die, they go to stainless steel dining cars that serve onion rings.

That’s where I am.

Angel’s is the oldest diner in Florida. It’s a rail car made of metal and checkered floors that carries people back to 1932.

On the walls: photographs of successful gator hunts, old pictures. On the menu: the usual American fare—along with frog legs, gizzards, and chicken livers.

Waitresses in camouflage T-shirts take orders, then pass paper tickets to a man in a white apron.

The joint is crowded. I’m at the counter, sipping coffee. Some fella’s elbows are touching mine. He’s from Wisconsin, and he’s eating onion rings.

“We’re buying a house here,” he says with a mouthful. “We knew we wanted to live here after only ONE visit. This place is just so darn special, don’cha know. ”

It sure is. Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, surrounded by trees draped in moss, and porches with dogs on them.

Billy Graham got baptized up the road. They dunked him in Silver lake, then ordained him in a clapboard church beneath the live oaks.

I visited that very church this morning. I listened for the shouting of a young Billy, still bouncing off wood floors. My father was no saint, but he loved Billy Graham.

In Palatka proper, there are old brick roads poking through paved streets, ancient storefronts, and a downhome community college.

Last night, I spoke at the Florida School of the Arts. I arrived at the auditorium early. The soundman flipped on stage lights to reveal a Grand-Ole-Opry themed stage.

“We built this just for you,” he said.

It made my eyes wet. “Why,” I asked, “would anyone do that?”

“‘Cause this is Palatka,” was the response. “We support people we love.”

Love. It abounds here. I met a woman who works at a domestic violence shelter. Her skin was midnight, her woven hair was in a turban.

“I went to college as an adult,” she said. “I was with an abusive man, used’a think I was worthless.”

She proved him wrong. She enrolled here, graduated, and started changing the world. She’s won awards for the work she does with abused women.

“This place supported me,” she said. “These people helped shape my life.”

And now she helps others.

I also met the Putnam County peace officers. These are the kinds of men who still remove their hats indoors. Jeans and boots are the unofficial deputy uniforms.

“Gator” DeLoach is sheriff. I asked how he inherited the nickname.

“Had this name since I was old enough to bite,” says Gator. “Just kinda stuck.”

After my speech, I met lots of Palatkans. One old man called me the second cousin he never had. One old woman told me she’s been praying for me every day for a year.

She hugged me. Then she said, “Your daddy come with you tonight?”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “My father’s been dead a long time.”

“You’re wrong,” she said. “I see him standing behind you right now. He looks proud.”

There was nothing behind me but a wall.

She kissed my forehead and was gone.

Anyway, the waitress is bringing my food. A burger on a soft white bun. Onion rings big enough to use in horseshoe tournaments.

The man from Wisconsin says, “You can betcha we don’t have onion rings like this way up Nort’.”

My father is with me. That’s what the woman said. Funny, I used to think heaven was miles above me.

I was wrong.


  1. Regina Peavy - January 14, 2018 8:00 am


  2. Margaret Holmberg - January 14, 2018 8:04 am

    That diner is such a special place! Thanks for reminding me of it.

  3. ccgoesdutch - January 14, 2018 8:27 am

    Palatka is officially on my bucket list now, thanks.

  4. Susan Hammett Poole - January 14, 2018 8:42 am

    Wow, love this post! I totally believe your Daddy was there that moment. May God continue to bless you with encounters that are so special.

  5. Robert Cantrell - January 14, 2018 10:24 am

    Your on the mark Sean. Write from the heart.
    A gift from God. Bless you.
    Hillbilly Bob

  6. Bobbie Lemons Lovell - January 14, 2018 10:57 am

    Heaven is not on the other side of Mars, but only a veil we can’t see through.

    • Pat - January 14, 2018 6:56 pm

      Absolutely love this!

    • Cecelia Gibbs - April 8, 2018 12:57 pm

      Yes! ❤️

  7. Suzanne Pickens - January 14, 2018 11:52 am

    Bless your heart, Sean — you gave such gifts to our community, perhaps the greatest one will be to see ourselves through the soft focus of your eyes!

  8. Sandra Smith - January 14, 2018 12:18 pm

    Ok, NOW I’m gonna go Google Palatka, and see how far away it is, because its now on my Bucket List !
    Thanks Sean
    PS- Your Daddy is ALWAYS with you.! ❤

  9. Jane Crawford - January 14, 2018 12:33 pm

    You know that you and Jamie are part ours now, Sean. Thank you for an amazing evening and for feeding my “big” ego. Next time you go to Angel’s be sure to get a Black Bottom and a Pussalow!!!!

  10. Susan Patterson - January 14, 2018 12:54 pm

    Sean, my daughter Katelyn went to Florida School of from 2013 to 2016. She loved Palatka. I love those cobblestone streets and the hometown feel of places like Angel’s. Thanks for sharing this. Blessings to you.

  11. Jack Darnell - January 14, 2018 1:20 pm

    Now you done it. I gotta drive back up the road and try Angel’s Diner. Last time through we ate at a good fish place.
    Great read. If my dad had lived he would be 115 years old today. He was three days older than I, or so he said.
    Thanks for some good smiles.

  12. Jack Darnell - January 14, 2018 1:23 pm

    I’m back. My wife just reminded me of Palatka Joe. A good friend of my sons while we lived on GITMO. One likeable kid. I hope he heard you!

  13. Colin Johnson - January 14, 2018 1:59 pm

    Folks that drive from Orlando to see you love you too. I now have all your books :). I smiled so much driving home my ears cracked. Shed some tears too. Your writing is magical, down home and real. Your heart bigger than Angels onions. Will see you again.

  14. Geneva Chandler - January 14, 2018 2:49 pm

    Road trip ahead. I am going to see the Saint John’s River and stay and eat in Palatka. Might go to church.

    • Edie Wilson - January 14, 2018 8:22 pm

      You come on Geneva. We gave a couple of Bed & Breakfast a few blocks from our beautiful St. John’s River. And you can go to church with me if you’d like.

      Edie Wilson

  15. Cecilia - January 14, 2018 3:41 pm

    Thank you for reminding me of the beauty and joy of living in a small community. It’s a true blessing to live in a community like that.

  16. Pat Byers - January 14, 2018 4:00 pm

    yes, your daddy is always with you. you feel him. others may see him. and he is surely proud of you.

  17. muthahun - January 14, 2018 4:11 pm

    Warm thoughts on a cold morning in Maine. But we’ve got sunshine, and I can smell those onion rings from here!

  18. Caron Eiman - January 14, 2018 4:14 pm

    Now I want to visit Palatka, eat a burger and onion rings.
    Teary eyed at your Dad being with you.

  19. Jack Quanstrum - January 14, 2018 4:44 pm

    Wonderfully Beautiful!

  20. Mike Varnes - January 14, 2018 5:07 pm

    Please tell the yankees we are at max capacity. Love your writing though!

  21. Lynda Clemons - January 14, 2018 5:24 pm

    I sure do hope that heaven is filled with hot fried onion rings!

  22. Cindy - January 14, 2018 6:22 pm

    Your father is proud of you and so are all your readers❤️

  23. Tammy Moody - January 14, 2018 6:34 pm

    Thanks for taking me back home today. I could feel my Momma and Daddy sittin’ right in the booth across from me. Yes, I’m crying, but I’m smiling too. Bless yer heart from one Red to another.

  24. wench1109 - January 14, 2018 8:39 pm

    Been to Palatka many times.
    My Grandparents had a home on Dunn’s Creek in San Mateo.Spent many weekends relaxing and fishing.
    Always had to stop at the Dairy Queen on the way home to Ocala.
    Both my Grandparents are gone now.
    My Grandpa drowned when the bank gave way. Spent sad days with my family waiting for the divers to bring him home.?
    My Grandma lived to be 96 and just passed.

    I would give anything to spend one more weekend fishing with my Grandpa.
    Would love to take my niece.So sad she missed growing up fishing with Grandpa.

  25. Julia Bearden - January 14, 2018 11:54 pm

    Nice one, Sean. “Ooh, heaven is a place on Earth” ~Belinda Carlisle

  26. Kathy Petersen - January 15, 2018 12:09 am

    My grandfather, Charles S Petermann, grew up in Palatka. His father owned a hotel there late 19th century into the 20th. I remember visiting Palatka as a child. In the late 40’s and 50’s. Loved your article!

  27. Sue Crinkite - January 15, 2018 12:17 am

    Right on the mark. Your dad’s spirit is with you wherever you are.

  28. Mary - January 15, 2018 12:38 am

    My family lived in the Palatka area for about 5 years of my childhood. I was blessed to have a good friend there whose family treated me like their own when I visited on weekends. They treated me with love and took me to church. From them I learned what unconditional love is, learned about God and how to give to others. The Carnleys have been THE difference in my life. Palatka will always be a special place to me because of this family and what they gave me to carry away in my heart. I was 15 when my family moved away and it has been almost 40 years since, but I’ll always be grateful for the blessings I received there. I’m glad for the person I became as a result.

  29. Sharon Underwood McCauley - January 15, 2018 1:09 am

    My grandfather, Cecil Underwood, Sr., was the pastor at Peniel Baptist church. He baptized and ordained Billy Graham in Palatka. Rev. Graham lived with my grandparents for a summer and practiced preaching in my grandfather’s church. There is a mural to depict these events. Thank you for writing a good article about Palatka. I still have family in the area!
    Sharon Underwood McCauley

  30. Kathleen Jun Magyar - January 15, 2018 6:32 am

    Beautiful writing.

  31. robert henderson - January 15, 2018 2:27 pm

    That’s awesome, you visit a ton of places I do.

    I delivered lime to the paper mill on the way into Palatka, and I would sleep at the Home Depot after, in my truck of course.

    There is a tiki bar right in front of it that always stays busy at night, and for 5 bucks at the door you can waste away in Margaritaville with them.

    Across the road was Golden Corral, the best Froth Breakfast around, and if you’re lucky enough, you can watch some skydivers too.

    Have fun, be safe.

  32. Nastraletta Battles - January 15, 2018 3:45 pm

    Such a refreshing article about my hometown. I was born and raised in Palatka.

  33. Katy Harrell Steinkamp - January 17, 2018 7:52 pm

    I grew up there. I got a great beginning from Palatka. Great, good people there. My father owned a couple of drugstores and my brother ran them after he died. Family’s still there. Nothing like the sunrise over the St. Johns’s River with the frogs and gators providing the background music.
    A friend of mine sent me your blog. I write a blog on WordPress on BlueHost too. You can find it at I’d love to share a listing to your blog on mine and vice versa. No pressure. Just let me know on my email. I think we are after the same audience.

    • Jane Thomas Crawford’s Location - January 18, 2018 2:37 am

      lI Katy. Good to see you here on Sean’s blog. I’m Mary Louise’s daughter, Jane.

  34. Katy Harrell Steinkamp - January 18, 2018 12:43 am

    I just read a book of yours and I feel like I’ve discovered a new friend! I love your writings!

  35. Alejandro Santiago - January 18, 2018 2:20 am

    Love the article, fond memories of my college years in Palatka at Florida School of the Arts.

  36. Stacy Goodwin Bath - January 31, 2018 2:03 am

    I am a Native Palatka girl. This made me proud.

  37. Thomas Williams - April 8, 2018 1:40 pm

    I am an East Palatka native and we still own our home on the St John’s River. It is and always will be home. As an African American who transitioned from segregated schools to integrated schools in this small town it was a challenging but awesome experience. My favorite place to grab some fried chicken and Fries was “Jerry’s”. My favorite spot to eat now is “Corky Bells” at Gator Landing. My name is Colonel (Retired) Thomas Williams and East Palatka will always be my home.

  38. Pam Garris - June 25, 2018 5:06 am

    Palatka is a place of special people,places and a rich history. It is a city realizing rebirth and growth. Newcomers and natives are welcome to come,and be a part of the next chapter. Hurry before the secret is out.
    Pam Pellicer Garris, a proud Palatka native

  39. Barbara Bray - January 28, 2019 1:36 pm

    I don’t mind getting up in the mornings so much when I know I have my coffee and your stories to look forward to. Every one clutches the heart. My Daddy passed away 31 years ago this month . I miss him every day. He was a pilot in WW II flying B 17 s and he was a DeLoach. It was nice to see the name in print. I imagine he and Gator were distant cousins , somewhere down the line….like to think so anyway.

  40. Nancy - January 28, 2019 6:16 pm

    My dad was abusive. I had a ghost hunter tell me there was an older man standing behind me saying he was sorry. I’ve been able to forgive him.

  41. Kathryn - January 28, 2019 7:51 pm

    I lived in Palatka many years ago, fell in love with a tall, dark and handsome teacher who introduced me to Angel’s. Palatial is a special place. I should have married the teacher and stayed there.

  42. Christina Carmickle - January 29, 2019 5:52 am

    Thanks for the lovely comments about one of Florida’s most underrated towns. As far as I am concerned it can stay underrated, and a secret.

  43. Mary Lou Dawson - June 16, 2021 4:58 pm

    My son’s family gave us tickets to the show you did in Palatka. It was wonderful. It raised money for a charity and the tickets were a Christmas gift. I was a founding member of the Helping Hands Organization. You are our kind of people. Keep up the good work and I’ll keep crying as you touch my heart.


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