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Famed 'Lean On Me' Paterson Eastside Principal Joe Clark Dies

Joe Clark
Joe Clark Photo Credit:

He roamed the hallways of Paterson Eastside High School with a bullhorn and bat, wielding a brand of drill-instructor discipline that drew both admirers and critics alike.

He held news conferences at 7 a.m. and once expelled 300 students for "fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession" – all in a single day.

And he left such an indelible mark that John Legend, Wendy Calhoun and LeBron James were preparing to create a TV drama about him 30 years after his retirement.

Joe Louis Clark, a Georgia-born, longtime South Orange resident who appeared on the cover of Time magazine and became the inspiration for the film “Lean On Me,” at his home in Gainesville, Florida Tuesday night after a long, unspecified illness, his family said.

He was 82.

"Paterson has lost a legend," Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said. "Joe Clark spoke strongly and carried a big stick. If anyone needs to see what type of positive impact he had on his students then I suggest they watch, 'Lean on Me’.'

The 1989 film starred Morgan Freeman as Clark, who became known for his combination of compassion and commitment to strict discipline.

Clark was 6 when his family moved from Georgia to Newark in 1944.

He would become a New Jerseyan through and through, graduating from Newark Central High School, William Paterson College (now William Paterson University) and Seton Hall, where he got his masters. Clark also received an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.

His particular style of education was honed as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor.

Clark began his professional career teaching grade school in Paterson before becoming principal of #6 School and commanding what was dubbed the “Miracle of Carroll Street.”

He became larger than life and made a national name as principal of tumultuous Eastside, with his ever-present baseball bat serving as a symbol of whether students wanted to hit home runs or strike out.

President Regan offered Clark a job as an advisor on educational policy. He remained dedicated to his students and his school, however.

Clark later took a job at what was then called the Essex County Detention House in Newark after retiring from Eastside in 1989. He worked there for six years while writing the how-to book “Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools.”

Clark was predeceased by his wife, Gloria.

He leaves behind offspring from one of the Garden State’s most accomplished track and field families: Olympian and businesswoman Joetta Clark Diggs, Olympic athlete and Bermuda Tourism Authority Director of Sports Business Development Hazel Clark, and Stanford University Track and Field and Cross Country Director Joe Clark, Jr., along with grandchildren Talitha, Jorell, and Hazel.

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