Joe Clark, N.J. Principal Who Inspired Film Lean on Me Starring Morgan Freeman, Dies at 82

Nicholas Rice
·3 min read

Yvonne Hemsey/Liaison/Getty

Joe Clark, a high school principal who served as the inspiration for the film Lean On Me, has died. He was 82.

According to a statement from Clark's family, the retired New Jersey principal died on Tuesday in his Gainesville, Florida home after a "long battle with illness." The family did not specify the illness.

Clark was the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, where his quest to improve the school from within earned him national attention. As the statement from his family recalled, he once expelled 300 students for "fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession" in a single day.

"Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide," the statement added. "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."

He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1988, and a year later, his experiences were depicted on the big screen in the film Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman,. Clark also published a book, Laying Down the Law, about his educational approach at the New Jersey high school.

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Moviestore/Shutterstock Morgan Freeman, Joe Clark

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark's family moved up to Newark, New Jersey, when he was 6 years old.

After graduating from Newark Central High School, Clark went on to receive a 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 drill instructor.

Clark then started teaching at a Paterson grade school in Essex County, New Jersey — where he also served as Director of Camps and Playgrounds — before he later became principal of PS 6 Grammar School. Under his watch, the school that was once "failing" was changed into the "Miracle of Carroll Street," according to the statement from his family.

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Clark was later hired as principal of the "crime and drug-ridden" Eastside High School, where his family added that he "lifted the expectations of those that remained, continually challenging them to perform better."

The disciplinarian even declined a White House policy advisor position, offered by then-President Ronald Reagan, because of his "dedication to his students and community," his family wrote.

Clark also worked for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark after he retired from Eastside High School in 1989.

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"Paterson has lost a legend," said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh in a statement, per 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."

Clark is survived by his three children — Joetta, Hazel and JJ — and three grandchildren: Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. He was predeceased by his wife, Gloria.