Joe Clark

Joe Clark, Tough and Dedicated NJ Principal Who Inspired Film ‘Lean on Me,' Dead at 82

Known for roaming the halls of the school with a baseball bat and a blowhorn, Clark helped turn around Paterson's Eastside High School, which was riddled with crime and drugs when he took over as principal

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Joe Louis Clark, whose toughness and dedication to the students at a troubled high school in New Jersey landed him on the cover of TIME magazine and inspired the 1989 movie "Lean on Me," has died at the age of 82, his family said.

The former educator and lifelong South Orange resident had retired to Gainesville, Florida, and was at home with family when he died Tuesday after a long battle with illness, his family said in a press release.

Clark helped turn around Paterson's Eastside High School, which was riddled with crime and drugs when he took over as principal. Before taking over at the school, Clark taught at grade school in Paterson and served as the Director of Camps and Playgrounds for Essex County. He was soon named principal at the elementary school, and the once-failing school was said to be transformed into the "Miracle of Carroll Street," his family said.

"Paterson has lost a legend. Joe Clark spoke strongly and carried a big stick," Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said. "If anyone needs to see what type of positive influence he had on his students then I suggest they watch, "Lean On Me."

Joe Louis Clark on cover of TIME magazine
TIME
Paterson, New Jersey, Principal Joe Louis Clark was featured on the cover of TIME magazine in 1988

Born in Georgia in 1938, Clark moved to Newark with his family at the age of 6. He graduated from Newark Central High School, and earned degrees from William Paterson College, Seton Hall University and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.

Before he started his teaching career, Clark was a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor, which his family said "engrained in him a respect for order and achievement." That attributes were on display during his time as principal of Eastside High School, where in one day he expelled 300 students for a variety of reasons.

He was known for roaming the halls of the school with a baseball bat and a blowhorn, and his strict methods earned him both praise and criticism nationwide. Clark said the baseball bat was not to be seen as a weapon, but rather as a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out, or hit a home run.

He was so well regarded that President Ronald Reagan offered him a position at the White House as a policy advisor, but Clark turned it down to remain with the students. He retired from Eastside High School in 1989, the same year that the film "Lean on Me," based on his time at the school and starring Morgan Freeman, was released. He continued to work as the director at an Essex County juvenile detention center in Newark for six years after that, and wrote Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools.

His family said that Clark's captivating, almost larger-than-life career also inspired John Legend and LeBron James direct a television series that reflected the transcendence of his philosophies.

"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. 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," Paterson Superintendent of Schools Eileen Shafer said. "But in the end, it is the many lives Joe Clark influenced for the better that have become his greatest legacy."

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