Joe Clark, the principal portrayed in film 'Lean on Me,' dead at 82

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 film "Lean on Me," died at his Florida home on Tuesday after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said in statement. He was 82.

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark's 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 started teaching at a Paterson grade school in Essex County, N.J., before becoming principal of PS 6 Grammar School.

He was later hired as principal of the crime and drug-ridden Eastside High School.



In one day, he expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession, and lifted the expectations of those who 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.

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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.

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. 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."

He retired to Gainesville, Florida.

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 said in a statement that "he was at home and surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with illness on December 29, 2020."
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