Principal Joe Clark, who inspired the film ‘Lean on Me,’ dies at 82

Eastside High School Principal Joe Clark is pictured at a rally by student supporters
Eastside High School Principal Joe Clark at a 1987 rally by student supporters in Paterson, N.J.
(Peter Cannata / Associated Press)

Joe Louis Clark, the 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 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, N.J., 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 Reagan offered Clark a White House policy advisor position after his success at the high school.

Morgan Freeman starred as Clark in “Lean on Me,” which was loosely based on Clark’s tenure at Eastside.


“Joe was a father figure to school kids,” Freeman said in a statement Wednesday. “He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

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, N.J. He also wrote “Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools,” detailing his methods for turning around Eastside High.

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

Clark was born in Rochelle, Ga., on May 8, 1938. His family moved north to Newark when he was 6 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.