Hugs, laughter and tears were in no short supply as the Oakland Mills High School community bid farewell to one of its own last week.
More than 100 people gathered in the Columbia high school's cafeteria July 18 to say goodbye to Frank Eastham, who has been principal at Oakland Mills for nine years, and who is leaving his post to become executive director of School Improvement and Administration for the Howard County Public School System.
"Frank is a special kind of guy," said County Council member Calvin Ball, who lives in and represents the Oakland Mills community. "He's thoughtful, sensitive, caring, but he's also tough and strong. (Him leaving) made me sad for Oakland Mills, but as I reflected a little more, I realized I'm more happy for Howard County. That same heartbeat he brings to Oakland Mills, he'll now spread throughout the entire county."
Eastham, a former assistant principal at Oakland Mills, had been working as principal at the Homewood Center when then-superintendent Sydney Cousin "asked me to come home" in August 2004.
"It was a difficult time," Eastham told those gathered. "We'd come off a devastating year of conflict, division and embarrassment. Two weeks before school started, (Cousin) asked me to help heal the tremendous hurt the community had suffered."
The Oakland Mills football team had been part of a grade-altering scandal in the fall of 2003, and had to forfeit its victories that season. A few months later, according to a published report, an investigation revealed irregularities involving other sports teams that led to forfeitures. In the fallout, lines were drawn and people took sides, said Vincent James, who as teaching at the school.
"(The football scandal) was at the beginning of the year, and it just set the tone for the following months," said James, currently a gifted and talented resource teacher at Oakland Mills. "It devastated the school and the community. The sad thing is, because it was a scandal, people were divided. Parents were seeing their kids come home dejected. People were putting in transfers, or being transferred and we didn't know what was going to happen next."
Then Eastham came on board, James said, and "spent time rebuilding us.
"Frank has this deep, abiding faith that even when things are crazy, he can find this center and stop and focus," James said.
The turmoil Eastham helped ease was felt acutely by students, said Daniel Johnson, a 2006 Oakland Mills graduate.
"Oakland Mills had a reputation," he said. "I didn't want to be here. I had such a negative attitude about it. The first two years were horrible — Mr. James was the only person who cared and I got to a point where I just wanted to drop out. People were giving up on each other. Then Mr. Eastham came and he and Mr. James were the only ones who didn't give up on me. He did something to this school. He connected everyone. It's just who he is. He literally changed my life."
More than 2,500 students have graduated from Oakland Mills during Eastham's tenure — many of whom still keep in touch with their beloved principal many see as a father figure.
"People think it's weird that we all still keep in touch with him, texting, emailing, whatever," said Ceaira Thomas, a 2012 graduate. "Not everyone has that bond with the school and with their principal like we do."
Eastham, said Kayla Tullis, a 2012 graduate, knows every student by their first name and cares deeply about them. When she was trying to get into college, she said, she was able to go directly to Eastham for college recommendations and advice.
Adam Vaughn, a 2013 graduate, said when Eastham walked into the room, it feels like "a mixture of seeing your best friend and the president of the United States.
"That's what it is — he has this huge sense of dignity and friendliness and open-heartedness around him," Vaughn said.
It was the students, Eastham said, that spurred him to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. every morning. Eastham quoted Maya Angelou in his parting words, urging the students to "continue to refuse to be reduced" by how others perceive Oakland Mills.
"Students, you are beautiful," he said, choking back tears. "It's impossible to recount all of the wonderful ways you've impacted my life. You have each deposited something unique in me that I will keep with me forever. We have been together through triumphs and tragedies, and it's been such a blessing to do life with you. You all have what it takes to continue doing the work we have begun together: to keep unity in our community."