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Joe Clark who inspired film Lean On Me starring Morgan Freeman dies at Florida home at age 82


Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal who inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me starring Morgan Freeman, died Tuesday at age 82.

He died at his Florida home on Tuesday surrounded by his loved ones after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said in statement. 

His tough, discipline-heavy approach to improving Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey won him national attention, landed him on the cover of Time Magazine, and led to an offer to join Ronald Reagan’s administration as a policy adviser, which he declined. 

Inspirational principal: Joe Clark, shown in December 1987, died Tuesday at age 82 at his home in Florida

Inspirational principal: Joe Clark, shown in December 1987, died Tuesday at age 82 at his home in Florida

Biographical drama: The baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me starring Morgan Freeman. Freeman and Clark pictured together above

Biographical drama: The baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me starring Morgan Freeman. Freeman and Clark pictured together above 

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark’s 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. 

He also served as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and a drill instructor.

Clark started teaching at a Paterson grade school in Essex County, New Jersey, before becoming principal of PS 6 Grammar School.

He was later hired as principal of the crime and drug-ridden Eastside High School in New Jersey and in one day, Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession.

Clark said that the baseball bat he was often seen holding was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run. Pictured above in 1988

Clark said that the baseball bat he was often seen holding was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run. Pictured above in 1988 

Time cover: Clark was on the cover of Time magazine in 1988 over his controversial tactics

Time cover: Clark was on the cover of Time magazine in 1988 over his controversial tactics

Strong support: Clark, as principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., stands with rap group Run-DMC before the group gave a concert at the school in February 1988 in support of Clark's way of running his school

Strong support: Clark, as principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., stands with rap group Run-DMC before the group gave a concert at the school in February 1988 in support of Clark’s way of running his school

Clark pictured with his children Hazel, JJ and Joetta in 2013

Clark pictured with his children Hazel, JJ and Joetta in 2013

Clark lifted the expectations of those who 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.  

Loosely based: Lean On Me was loosely based on Clark

Loosely based: Lean On Me was loosely based on Clark

Clark said that the baseball bat he was often seen holding was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run.  

President Ronald Reagan offered Clark a White House policy advisor position after his success at the high school.

His principal career inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me where he was portrayed by Freeman, 83.

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.

He retired to Gainesville, Florida.

Clark is survived by his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. 

His wife, Gloria, preceded him in death.

Clark's daughter shared this tribute showing her father over the years

Clark’s daughter shared this tribute showing her father over the years

'Joe Clark – who rose to national prominence as principal of Paterson's Eastside High School and was the inspiration of the 1989 film "Lean on Me" – dedicated his life to educating New Jersey's youth. He will be missed,' Govenor Phil Murphy shared Wednesday

‘Joe Clark – who rose to national prominence as principal of Paterson’s Eastside High School and was the inspiration of the 1989 film “Lean on Me” – dedicated his life to educating New Jersey’s youth. He will be missed,’ Govenor Phil Murphy shared Wednesday

Tributes have poured in for the powerful educator on social media, with many hailing him a ‘legend.’ 

‘Paterson has lost a legend. 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,’ Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said in a touching tribute.

‘Joe Clark – who rose to national prominence as principal of Paterson’s Eastside High School and was the inspiration of the 1989 film “Lean on Me” – dedicated his life to educating New Jersey’s youth. He will be missed,’ Govenor Phil Murphy shared Wednesday. 

‘As a child, I remember “Lean on Me” making a huge impact on me. This movie impacted me so much that I wanted to become a principal. I looked up to Mr. Joe Clark as a role model and admired his unorthodox methods in caring for children and his community. RIP to an icon,’ one Twitter user shared. 



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