Joe Clark, Paterson’s tough-love principal behind ‘Lean on Me,’ dies at 82
PATERSON — Joe Louis Clark, the New Jersey high school disciplinarian who was the inspiration for the Morgan Freeman role in the 1989 movie "Lean on Me" died on Tuesday. He was 82.
Known for carrying a signature baseball bat and bullhorn, Clark once expelled 300 students on a single day from the city's failing Eastside High School.
An inspiration to students in the schools where he worked, Clark also raised a family that reached great heights. His daughters Joetta Clark Diggs and Hazel Clark were members of the U.S. Olympic track and field team. His son, Joe "JJ" Clark Jr., was their coach and last year was named the director of track and field and cross country at Stanford University.
Clark's scorched-earth approach earned him plaudits as well as condemnation, including from critics who disagreed with Clark's methods of expelling at-risk students who were mostly poor, Black and Latino.
Story continues below photos.
Local controversy turned into national headlines. President Ronald Reagan invited him to become a White House policy advisor. He was interviewed on "60 Minutes," "The Arsenio Hall Show" and was on the cover of Time. Then came Hollywood.
Freeman played Clark in the movie about the crime-infested city high school that faces a state takeover before Clark inspires the staff and student body to succeed on a standardized test. The movie shows Clark being arrested for chaining the school's doors shut in order to keep out miscreants involved with drugs and violence. The film climaxes with students and parents rallying to save his job.
His family's obituary says 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."
Eileen Shafer, the current schools superintendent in Paterson, said 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, Joe Clark courageously stood in the way of anyone who dared to try to lure a young person down the wrong path," Shafer said in a written statement released Wednesday.
Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, his family moved to Newark when he was 6 years old. He graduated from Newark's Central High School and obtained a bachelor's degree from William Paterson College and a master's degree from Seton Hall University.
After serving as a drill instructor in the U.S. Army Reserve, he became a teacher and eventually landed a job as principal of Paterson's School 6, a troubled school that became known as "the Miracle of Carroll Street" under his leadership, his obituary notes.
Clark left public education in 1989 and served as director of the juvenile Essex County Detention House for six years. He retired to Gainesville, Florida, where he died at home surrounded by family.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-775-9793 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.