Joe Louis Clark, NJ principal who inspired ‘Lean on Me,’ dies at 82

New Jersey
Joe Clark

Eastside High School Principal Joe Clark is pictured during a rally by students to support him at the Paterson, N.J., school, Dec. 21, 1987. Clark has threatened to ask for a transfer if he cannot retain control of school policies in a dispute with the school board. (AP Photo/Peter Cannata)

PATERSON, N.J. — Joe Louis Clark, the principal at Paterson, New Jersey’s Eastside High who inspired a major motion picture, died Tuesday at the age of 82, his family announced.

A longtime resident of South Orange, Clark retired to Gainesville, Florida. He was at home and surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with illness on Tuesday.

Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark’s family moved north to Newark when he was six years old.

Clark was known as the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods at Eastside inspired the 1989 film “Lean on Me,” starring Morgan Freeman as Clark. The film won two NAACP Image Awards.

“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. And with his bullhorn and baseball bat, and Joe Clark courageously stood in the way of anyone who dared to try to lure a young person down the wrong path.”

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.

Predeceased by his wife, Gloria, Clark is survived by his three children.

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