Principal Joe Clark, Who Inspired Film ‘Lean on Me,’ Dies

December 30, 2020 Updated: December 30, 2020

GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 film “Lean on Me,” died at his Florida home on Tuesday after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said. He was 82.

At crime- and drug-ridden Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, Clark expelled 300 students in a single day for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession. That lifted the expectations of those who remained, continually challenging them to perform better. Clark’s unorthodox methods, which included roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, won him both admirers and critics nationwide. President Ronald Reagan offered Clark a White House policy adviser position after his success at the high school.

Morgan Freeman starred as Clark in the 1989 film “Lean on Me” that was loosely based on Clark’s tenure at Eastside.

After he retired from Eastside in 1989, Clark worked for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. He also wrote “Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools,” detailing his methods for turning around Eastside High.

Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School
Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School, stands with rap group Run-DMC before the group gave a concert at the school in support of Clark’s way of running his school in Paterson, N.J., on Feb. 11, 1988. (Peter Cannata/AP Photo)

Clark’s teaching career started at a Paterson grade school in Passaic County, New Jersey, before he became principal of PS 6 Grammar School.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938. His family moved north to Newark, New Jersey, when he was six years old. After graduating from Newark Central High School, Clark received his 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 a drill instructor.

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