‘Lean on Me’ inspiration Joe Clark dies at 82

The legendary New Jersey principal who inspired the 1989 film “Lean on Me” died at the age of 82, his family said Wednesday.

Joe Louis Clark served as the principal of Paterson’s Eastside High School, where he used unconventional disciplinary tactics to set the troubled school straight in the 1980s.

“Under Clark’s command, the once failing school was transformed into the ‘Miracle of Carroll Street,'” his family said in a news release. “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.”

Clark’s efforts earned him an appointment from President Ronald Reagan as a White House policy advisor. He appeared on “60 Minutes” and graced the cover of Time Magazine before “Lean on Me,” starring Morgan Freeman, was released.

Paterson Public Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer said Clark was “fiercely devoted to the students in his care,” and left an “indelible mark on public education,” according to a Facebook post from the school district.

“He demanded more from his students because he believed they could achieve more than what was expected of them,” Shafer 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.”

Clark went on to become the director of the Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark, where he received backlash for putting teenagers in handcuffs and leg irons.

“They were not abused,” Clark said at the time, NJ.com reported. “They were not beaten … they were simply handled in a manner commensurate with their unacceptable behavior.”

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, in 1938 and moved to Newark, New Jersey at six years old with his family. He became a longtime resident of South Orange, New Jersey, and was a Paterson grade school teacher and the Director of Camps and Playgrounds in Essex County. He later became a Principal of PS 6 Grammar School before being appointed as principal of Eastside high School.

He retired in Gainesville, Florida and died after a long fight with illness, his family said. 

“Lean on Me,” directed by John G. Avildsen, earned popular reviews and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.


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