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Joe Clark, the uncompromising New Jersey high school principal who employed a bullhorn and baseball bat to round his students into shape en route to becoming the subject of the inspirational Morgan Freeman film Lean on Me, has died. He was 82.
Clark died Tuesday after a long illness at his home in Gainesville, Florida, his family announced.
Soon after taking over as head of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession — in one day — and challenged the kids that remained to perform better.
“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 in a CNN interview. “I’m convinced that young people, the vast majority, deserve the right to an environment that’s conducive to learning.”
Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and baseball bat, Clark won admirers as well as critics. He 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 declined an offer from President Reagan to serve as a White House policy adviser, appeared on 60 Minutes and The Arsenio Hall Show and was featured on the cover of Time magazine (with a baseball bat, of course) as Lean on Me hit theaters. The 1989 Warner Bros. release, directed by John G. Avildsen of Rocky fame, was made for about $10 million and grossed nearly $32 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
In a 1989 interview, Freeman, who played Clark in the movie, called the principal a “charismatic magician” and noted that during the making of the film, 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 in 1989.
“Joe Clark left his indelible mark on public education by being fiercely devoted to the students in his care,” Paterson superintendent of schools Eileen Shafer said in a statement. “He demanded more from his students because he believed they could achieve more than what was expected of them.”
Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Joe Lewis Clark and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey, when he was 6. After Newark Central High School, he received his bachelor’s degree from William Paterson College, his master’s from Seton Hall University and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.
A stint after college as a U.S. Army reserve sergeant and drill instructor engrained in him a respect for order and achievement.
Clark served as a Paterson grade school teacher and the director of camps and playgrounds in Essex County, New Jersey, then was hired as principal of PS 6 Grammar School, a failing school that he transformed into what his family called the “Miracle of Carroll Street.”
After Eastside, Clark worked for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. He also wrote the book Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, published in 1989.
Survivors include his three children: Joetta Clark Diggs, a four-time Olympic track athlete and businesswoman; Hazel Clark, a three-time Olympic track star and director of sports business development for the Bermuda Tourism Authority; and Joe Clark Jr., director of track and field and cross country at Stanford University; and his grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel.
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