Joe Clark, Principal Who Inspired ‘Lean on Me,’ Dead at 82

Joe Clark, the New Jersey high school principal who was the subject of Morgan Freeman’s 1989 film Lean on Me, has died at the age of 82. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Clark died after battling a long illness at his home in Gainesville, Florida. His family confirmed the news. Although, they did not disclose Clark’s illness. Clark rose to prominence for his uncompromising demeanor when it came to the students at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey.

Clark was famous for employing a bullhorn and a baseball bat in order to help keep his students in shape. A statement from Clark’s family read, “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.” Shortly after he became the principal at Eastside High School, Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession in one single day. He then challenged the students who remained to be better. During an interview with CNN, the former principal explained why he took such drastic measures when it came to his approach with his students.

“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 and deviant behavior in those schools,” Clark said. “I’m convinced that young people, the vast majority, deserve the right to an environment that’s conducive to learning.” Around the time of Lean on Me’s release, Clark appeared on 60 Minutes and The Arsenio Hall Show. He was also featured on the cover of Time magazine with a baseball bat in hand. THR reported that he even declined an offer from President Ronald Reagan to serve as a White House policy adviser.

Lean on Me, which starred Freeman in the role of Clark, premiered in 1989 and grossed over $32 million. In an interview, Freeman explained that the principal was a “charismatic magician” and said that while they were making the movie, the educator “got up in front of the students and said, ‘You know, they’re going to be making the picture, and we are the stars. So let’s give them every help we can.’ And by George, that’s what they did.” Clark retired from Eastside High School in 1989. He is survived by his three children, Joetta Clark Diggs, Hazel Clark, Joe Clark Jr., and his grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell, and Hazel.

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