Joe Clark, New Jersey principal portrayed in film 'Lean on Me,' dies at 82

PATERSON, New Jersey (WABC) -- Joe Clark, the tough yet inspirational New Jersey high school principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the hit film "Lean on Me," has died at the age of 82.

The former principal of Eastside High School in Paterson who famously used a bullhorn and a baseball bat to keep his students in line died Tuesday at his home in Florida after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said.

The bat, Clark once explained, was not a weapon, but a symbol of choice for students who could either strike out or hit a home run.

Paterson Superintendent of Schools Eileen Shafer released a statement following the announcement of Clark's death:

"Joe Clark left his indelible mark on public education by being fiercely devoted to the students in his care. He demanded more from his students because he believed they could achieve more than what was expected of them," she said. "And with his bullhorn and baseball bat, and Joe Clark courageously stood in the way of anyone who dared to try to lure a young person down the wrong path. Joe Clark was even the subject of a Hollywood movie. But in the end, it is the many lives Joe Clark influenced for the better that have become his greatest legacy. Our hearts are deeply saddened by Joe Clark's passing, and our prayers are with his family and friends."

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At the crime- and drug-ridden school, Clark once expelled 300 students in a single day for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession. That lifted the expectations of those who remained, continually challenging them to perform better.

Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide, and President Ronald Reagan offered him a White House policy adviser position after his success at the high school.

Freeman starred as Clark in the 1989 film "Lean on Me" that was loosely based on Clark's tenure at Eastside.

After he retired from Eastside in 1989, Clark worked for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. He also wrote "Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools," detailing his methods for turning around Eastside High.

Clark's teaching career started at a Paterson grade school in Passaic County, New Jersey, before he became principal of PS 6 Grammar School.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938. His family moved north to Newark, New Jersey, when he was 6 years old. After graduating from Newark Central High School, Clark received his bachelor's degree from William Paterson College (now William Paterson University), a master's degree from Seton Hall University, and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy. Clark also served as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and a drill instructor.

Clark is survived by his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. His wife, Gloria, preceded him in death.

Clark's family released a lengthy statement describing his life and impact. Here is the full text of the statement:

Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding Principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods at Paterson, New Jersey's Eastside High School inspired the 1989 film Lean on Me, has passed away. A longtime resident of South Orange, NJ, Clark (82) retired to Gainesville, Florida. He was at home and surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with illness on December 29, 2020.

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark's family moved north to Newark, New Jersey, when he was six years old. It was in the Garden State that Clark built his legacy through both his accomplished career in education and his children: Olympian and businesswoman Joetta Clark Diggs, Olympic Athlete and Director of Sports Business Development for the Bermuda Tourism Authority Hazel Clark, and accomplished athlete and Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at Stanford University Joe Clark, Jr.

A Legacy of Laying Down the Law

After graduating from Newark Central High School, Clark continued on to achieve his bachelor's degree from William Paterson College (now William Paterson University), a master's degree from Seton Hall University, and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.

Clark's post-collegiate career as a U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant and Drill Instructor engrained in him a respect for order and achievement, which came to define his more than three-decade career in education.
First serving as a Paterson grade school teacher and the Director of Camps and Playgrounds in Essex County, NJ, Clark soon found his calling in administration as Principal of PS 6 Grammar School. Under Clark's command, the once failing school was transformed into the "Miracle of Carroll Street."

Committed to the pursuit of excellence, Clark greeted the challenges presented to him following his appointment as the Principal of crime and drug-ridden Eastside High School with eager optimism. In one day, he expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession and lifted the expectations of those that remained, continually challenging them to perform better. Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide. Steadfast in his approach, Clark explained that the bat was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run.

Impressed by the expeditious changes imparted on the troubled school, President Reagan offered Clark a White House policy advisor position. Clark's dedication to his students and community led him to decline the prestigious honor, and his larger-than-life career continued to spark conversations across the country. Clark appeared on programs including 60 Minutes and The Arsenio Hall Show and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine before the motion picture Lean on Me starring Morgan Freeman memorialized his work.

After he retired from Eastside in 1989, Clark worked for six years as the Director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. He also wrote Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools, detailing his methods for turning around Eastside High School and how they can be applied to combat crime, permissiveness, and academic decline in schools nationwide.

Nearly thirty years after his retirement, Clark's captivating career offered inspiration to executive directors John Legend and LeBron James for a television series, reflecting his philosophies' generational transcendence.

Predeceased by his wife, Gloria, Clark's legacy as an influential educator and father of New Jersey's most storied track and field family lives on through his children, Joetta, Hazel, and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell, and Hazel.


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(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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