Joe Clark, the no-nonsense principal of a high school in New Jersey who gained notoriety for his bare-knuckles approach to education and was immortalized on the big screen in the Hollywood production, “Lean on Me,” has died at the age of 82. He died Tuesday following a long battle with an undisclosed illness, Clark’s family said in a press release.
Known for using extreme methods of communication in his prized Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, Clark would routinely roam the hallways brandishing a bullhorn or baseball bat in an effort to both discipline and sow the seeds of learning into his student body — one that went from being ridden with truancy, drugs and crime to a group of straitlaced overachievers in the classroom.
Highly scrutinized at first, Clark’s tactics ultimately gained attention across the country equally for its unique style as well as its effectiveness with a predominately Black student population in a neglected city near his hometown of Newark.
While Clark was described as unorthodox, his brand of education administration drew on experience from his first job out of college: A U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant and Drill Instructor. That paved the way for his more than three decades in education, Clark’s family said.
“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,” Clark’s family said in the press release. “Under Clark’s command, the once failing school was transformed into the ‘Miracle of Carroll Street.'”
When Clark was appointed to be the principal of Eastside High, he took extreme measures immediately. “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,” the press release said before explaining the significance of Clark’s metaphorical use of a baseball bat: “a student could either strike out or hit a home run.”
The success at Eastside got the attention of Hollywood producers, who cast the venerable Morgan Freeman to portray Clark in the 1989 film, “Lean on Me,” which introduced movie-goers to the New Jersey school and its fearless principal.
Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark moved to Newark when he was six years old and lived in New Jersey until he retired in 1989.
Clark is survived by his three children, Olympian and businesswoman Joetta Clark Diggs; Olympic Athlete and Director of Sports Business Development for the Bermuda Tourism Authority Hazel Clark; and athlete and Director of Track and Field and Cross Country at Stanford University Joe (J.J.) Clark, Jr.; as well as three grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell, and Hazel.
May he rest in the same power he enjoyed in life.