Former Principal Joe Clark, The Inspiration For The Film 'Lean On Me,' Passes Away At 82
The controversial principal was well known in the 1980s for his efforts in turning around a troubled New Jersey school.
December 30, 2020 at 3:41 pm
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.