Principal Joe Clark Who Inspired The Film ‘Lean On Me’ Has Passed Away

Principal Joe Clark Who Inspired The Film ‘Lean On Me’ Has Passed Away

Principal Joe Clark
Joe Clark, a former Army drill instructor who called himself a “lean and mean” principal, is pictured at Paterson, N.J.’s Eastside High School, Sept. 13, 1983. He used military-like discipline to keep the 3,000 mostly Black and Hispanic students in line. Clark died on Dec. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/David Handschuh)

Joe Louis Clark, the famous bullhorn- and bat-wielding New Jersey principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, died on Dec. 29, 2020, at the age of 82, according to his family. Clark’s strict and unorthodox disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 hit film, “Lean On Me.” 

Clark died surrounded by family at his Gainesville, Florida, home after a long battle with illness.

Twitter was filled with comments about the hardcore principal who mentored many.

“One of the most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen…It made me want to be a teacher and advocate for students who are often overlooked or counted out. May his memory be a blessing,” wrote one user.

Another posted, “That Man was all kinds of America’s Father.”


Clark started his career in education as a Paterson grade school teacher, then became director of camps and playgrounds in Essex County. But he found his calling when he became the principal of PS 6 Grammar School. Under Clark’s command, the once-failing school was transformed into the “Miracle of Carroll Street,” his family said in a press release

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From grammar school principal, Clark went on to repeat his success at Eastside High School, turning the school — and its students — around. He expelled hundreds of students in one day at the crime- and drug-ridden school in Paterson. He was also tough on the teachers, demanding that they help raise the school’s educational standards.

“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,” the release stated. “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.”

Clark’s tough techniques were loved by some and criticized by others as being too hard on students. His supporters, however, hailed him as “Batman” for the baseball bat he carried while patrolling the halls of the school. He even caught the attention of President Ronald Reagan, who  offered him a White House policy advisor position, NJ.com reported.

The media also took note. Clark appeared on “60 Minutes” and “The Arsenio Hall Show” and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine before the movie “Lean on Me” starring Morgan Freeman told the world the story of the Jersey principal.

Clark retired from Eastside in 1989 but continued to work for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. 

His uncompromising discipline didn’t go over well at the detention house. He came under fire for putting teenagers in handcuffs and leg irons, NJ.com reported.

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

By Clark’s own admission, 12 17- and 18-year-old boys were shackled for two days after several violent episodes in which they hurled excrement at a guard.

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Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938. When he was 6 years old, he and his family moved to New Jersey, settling in Newark.

After graduating from Newark’s Central High School, Clark went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from William Paterson University (then William Paterson College). He later earned 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 a drill instructor.

“Clark’s post-collegiate career as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor ingrained in him a respect for order and achievement, which came to define his more than three-decade career in education,” his family said.

Clark also wrote a book, “Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools,” about his time at Eastside High.

Clark is survived by his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. His wife, Gloria, preceded him in death, AP reported.