Well-regarded New Jersey principal Joe Clark has died at the age of 82 from an undisclosed illness, according to his family.
Clark gained national recognition in the 1980s when he used his baseball bat and bullhorn to radically transform Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey.
The school had long suffered from drug addiction, violence and terrible test scores. Within a decade, Clark turned the school into a powerhouse using methods that were, at times, controversial.
"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," his family said in a statement.
"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," the family added.
Clark's work as principal of Eastside High School launched him into the national spotlight at a time when there was a countrywide discussion on what to do with the nation's struggling schools.
He was offered a White House role by former President Ronald Reagan and appeared on 60 Minutes, The Arsenio Hall Show as well as the cover of Time before the film Lean On Me was written about him. Morgan Freeman played him in the now-iconic role.
"Paterson has lost a legend," Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh told CNN. "Joe Clark spoke strongly and carried a big stick. If anyone needs to see what type of positive impact he had on his students then I suggest they watch, 'Lean on Me.'"
On Facebook, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said Clark will be missed after he "dedicated his life to educating New Jersey's youth."
According to his family, Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey when he was six. After getting his bachelor's and master's degrees from universities in New Jersey, he became a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor, which instilled in him a lifelong value of structure and order.
He initially got into education as a grade-school teacher in Paterson before working his way into senior administration positions. His work at the grade school led to his appointment to lead Eastside High School, a school struggling to stay afloat at the time.
Arlinda Crutchfield, who told the Paterson Times that she was a sophomore when Clark arrived at the school, said he "was the best thing that happened to that school."
“His methods were done out of love for the young Black community and they worked. He was so genuine. I will always remember how pleasant he was," Crutchfield said.
"I looked forward to seeing him in the halls with his bull horn because every time he saw me he called me by my name. I don’t know how he remembered it, but he did. I had such a good experience in high school, and because of him, I can say that I am proud to have went to Eastside,” she added.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy was among those who expressed their condolences on social media.
Some of his former students also took to social media to mourn.
RIP to former principal of Eastside High in Paterson, NJ .. Joe Clark. Clark was the subject of the 1989 film Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman. He was known in the 1980s for his unconventional and controversial disciplinary measures as the principal of Eastside High. pic.twitter.com/oTmSu0c8bI
— Ave (@SebastianAvenue) December 30, 2020
To Mr. Joe Clark – Farewell and fly high! Thank you for planting the seed of education in so many! “We sink, we swim, we rise, we fall – We meet our fate together.” – Mr. Clark ???????? pic.twitter.com/cui0juj5IP
— Lindsay Sharp (@LPSharpD300) December 30, 2020
Although his methods were hailed across the country, many Black teachers at the time and since then have come out harshly against the things Clark did while in charge, according to articles from Time and The Los Angeles Times.
The most controversial of his decisions, expelling children who sold drugs, fought, or had lackluster attendance, caused a significant backlash in his own community and among educators across the country.
Some criticized him for effectively discarding certain kids and others said his methods were only being allowed because most of the children at his school were Black. Many also lamented all of the kids who could have succeeded but were thrown out before they could get on the right track.
"We want to fix the schools, but you don't do that by seeing the kids as the enemy. Our role is to rescue and to be responsible. If the students were not poor Black children, Joe Clark would not be tolerated," Los Angeles Principal George McKenna told Time in 2001.
Although he criticized him, McKenna did say that administrators like Clark were forced to take drastic measures because of funding shortages and other societal ills that were not being addressed by the government.
Clark ardently defended all of his actions, routinely saying it was impossible for any student to learn in an environment rife with violence and drugs.
In a CNN interview at the time quoted by the Paterson Times, Clark said, "I must state forthrightly that I am a benevolent dictator.”
“I don’t just categorically extirpate young people out of school, but I am categorically emphatic that we cannot any longer condone hooliganism, aberrant behavior, deviant behavior in those schools. I’m convinced that young people, the vast majority, deserve the right to an environment that’s conducive to learning,” he added.
But others, including executive director of the New Jersey branch of the American Civil Liberties Union Edward Martone, said Clark's methods were offloading the students he threw out into other more dangerous situations.
"If every inner-city principal took the Joe Clark tack, they'd just throw one-third of their student body into the street. At best those kids are going to get minimum-wage jobs. At worst they're going to end up committing crimes and being incarcerated," Martone told Time.
Clark retired from the school in 1989 and moved to Florida. His two daughters are decorated Olympic athletes in track and field while his son is director of track and field and cross country at Stanford University.
In a statement to local news outlet ABC 7, Paterson superintendent of schools Eileen Shafer said the community was deeply saddened to hear about Clark's passing.
"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, 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," she added.