RUSKIN — The Soviet Union was coming apart. Grunge bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam were infiltrating the pop charts. Moviegoers were on the edge of their seats at The Silence of the Lambs.
In 1991, the Hillsborough County school district was half the size it is today — and Jeff Eakins was teaching fourth grade at Cypress Creek Elementary.
Two years out of rural Ohio and in his mid 20s, he considered himself lucky to be working at a showcase school that served the tomato-growing town of Ruskin.
“It was so shiny and new, with so many bells and whistles,” Eakins, now 54, said Thursday. His tenure as superintendent officially ends June 30.
Everybody, kids included, thought Cypress Creek was special. They wondered if they could preserve relics of that special place in a time capsule, to be opened in 25 years.
The idea became a schoolwide project and Eakins unearthed the capsule on Thursday — about three years behind schedule, but in time for his planned retirement.
“What do you think is inside?” he asked Joe Green, his former principal, who was at Cypress Creek for the event.
“There might be diamonds,” Green joked at one point.
The event attracted current and former teachers, including Carol Tedder, the former assistant principal who predicted in a 1995 evaluation that Eakins could one day become superintendent.
Former students were there, too.
“I got lucky enough to have him for fourth and fifth grade," said Tiffani Martinez, 37. "We never worked in his class. We had fun and we learned. He was inspirational. When they tell you, you’ll have a teacher that you’ll always remember, he is it.”
Freeing the capsule from its cinder block enclosure was easy, with just a few taps of a crowbar.
But when the staff moved the capsule upstairs to the media center, it proved difficult to open. The head custodian had to take it outside and work on it for about 20 minutes. Eakins, the teachers and guests had time to reminisce.
They wondered what would be inside. Wasn’t there an old T-shirt belonging to Eakins’ wife, who worked at the school too? Green remembered a videotape. He also remembered a tattered American flag that had hung over the school construction site, a gift from a Vietnam veteran who “felt very patriotic.”
When they finally opened the capsule, it was packed with newspapers, class photos, programs and letters from the children.
Asked to describe their future jobs, the children had named them: Police officer, model, dancer, Marine, “helper of people.”
The video was grainy in places, but the children could be seen clearly, singing the school song on stage.
During his time at Cypress Creek, Eakins was the school’s first Teacher of the Year.
After advancing to administration, he ran the district’s federal programs office and served as deputy superintendent for his hard-driving predecessor, MaryEllen Elia.
He was a logical choice in 2015 to succeed Elia, who, with her management style, had alienated more than half the School Board. Eakins set out to create what he described as a tone of “servant leadership” in the school system. He also pushed to keep more students in class instead of suspending them, and raise the educational level in Hillsborough’s poorest neighborhoods. He reached out to the early childhood education sector as a way to get children better prepared for kindergarten.
But, early on, he ran into a budget crisis. Years later, with air conditioning systems failing, he had to campaign for a tax referendum. Under his leadership, high school graduation rates increased, although one of his high school principals resigned following allegations that she falsified records to inflate the numbers. Eakins said he expected better, and commended his staff for recognizing the wrongdoing.
His replacement, Addison Davis, will begin the transition to leadership by shadowing Eakins for the next two weeks. Davis will return on March 23, after spring break, as acting superintendent.
A couple of times at Thursday’s event, guests and reporters tried to get Eakins to reflect on his accomplishments. When they did, he shifted the conversation to Green, someone he considered a mentor.
“Mr. Green, and the people who he hired, have done amazing things for kids in the school district,” Eakins said.
“He made sure he surrounded himself with people who cared about kids and wanted to do right by them. I was just a guy who had an idea for a time capsule. He always made our ideas come to life.”