Joe Louis Clark, Beloved High School Principal Portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me, Dead at 82

Tonja Renée Stidhum
·3 min read
Joe Clark headshot, as Essex County Youth Detention Facility director, Newark, New Jersey
Joe Clark headshot, as Essex County Youth Detention Facility director, Newark, New Jersey

Joe Louis Clark, the no-nonsense disciplinary high school principal who inspired the classic 1989 film Lean On Me, has died at the age of 89. According to an official press release, Clark succumbed after a long battle with an undisclosed illness on Tuesday at his Gainesville, Fla., home, surrounded by family.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Ga., on May 8, 1938, and his family later moved to Newark, N.J., in 1938. Ever the proponent of education, Clark earned a bachelor’s degree (then William Paterson College, now William Paterson University), a master’s degree (Seton Hall University), and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy. After concluding his collegiate career, Clark served in the U.S. Army as a Reserve Sergeant and Drill Instructor.

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More, from the press release:

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. Under Clark’s command, the once failing school was transformed into the “Miracle of Carroll Street.”

Committed to the pursuit of excellence, Clark greeted the challenges presented to him following his appointment as the Principal of crime and drug-ridden Eastside High School with eager optimism. 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. 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.

Impressed by the expeditious changes imparted on the troubled school, President Reagan offered Clark a White House policy advisor position. Clark’s dedication to his students and community led him to decline the prestigious honor, and his larger-than-life career continued to spark conversations across the country.

That very image of the bullhorn and bat became synonymous with Clark (who considered himself to be “a benevolent dictator”) on a grand scale when Morgan Freeman famously portrayed him in Lean On Me. As The Hollywood Reporter noted, Freeman once referred to Clark as a “charismatic magician.”


Lean On Me clip / YouTube

One of his real-life students, Arlinda Crutchfield, who was a sophomore when Clark began his tenure at Eastside High School released a statement upon hearing of his death.

“He was the best thing that happened to that school,” Crutchfield wrote in an email to the Paterson Times. “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. I looked forward to seeing him in the halls with his bull horn because everything 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!”

Clark retired from Eastside in 1989 and also wrote a book detailing his now well-known education and discipline methods titled, Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools. Clark is survived by his children Joetta, Hazel and JJ as well as his grandchildren Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. His wife Gloria, whom he met at Eastside, died last year.

As Freeman notably said in his powerful portrayal of the late leader and disciplinarian, “We sink, we swim, we rise, we fall—We meet our fate together.”

Rest in power, Mr. Clark.