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Family: Joe Louis Clark, former Paterson principal who inspired 'Lean on Me,' dies at age 82

Legendary educator Joe Louis Clark, the long-time principal at Eastside High School in Paterson who inspired the film "Lean on Me" and was known for his controversial approach to discipline, died Tuesday at the age of 82, his family says.

News 12 Staff

Dec 30, 2020, 5:30 PM

Updated 1,268 days ago

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Legendary educator Joe Louis Clark, the long-time principal at Eastside High School in Paterson who inspired the film "Lean on Me" and was known for his controversial approach to discipline, died Tuesday at the age of 82, his family says.
“Just try to pour into someone else and make their lives a little bit better and your life will have a meaning,” says Hazel Clark, his daughter. “That's what he always told us, and I just want to say that other people, if you want to preserve his legacy, live a life of service. Every single minute I'm getting a story that I didn't know about, about how my dad touched someone or coached them in a Little League team; and I want to thank everyone for that because we can't get that physical interaction, but those messages feel like virtual hugs. So, I do want to thank my state and everyone that has reached out to us for the support, and please keep us in your prayers and thoughts.”
Clark, a longtime resident of South Orange, retired to Florida and died at his home, according to his family, following a long battle with an unspecified illness.
His education career spanned three decades, and he retired from Eastside High School in 1989.
Clark became principal of crime- and drug-ridden Eastside High School with new enthusiasm. Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession in his first year. He was known for walking the halls with a bat and bullhorn during his years on campus in the 1980s.
What he accomplished at the school was later turned into the movie "Lean On Me", where Clark was played by Morgan Freeman.
As principal, he gained admirers and critics. He says that the bat was a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run.
Clark was offered a White House policy adviser position by President Ronald Reagan after seeing the quick changes at the school. Clark declined the position because of his dedication to his community and students.
Clark's family moved to Newark when he was six. He later graduated from Central High School and earned an undergraduate degree from William Paterson University and a masters from Seton Hall. He then served as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh reacted to the news, saying: "Paterson has lost a legend. Joe Clark spoke strongly and carried a big stick. If anyone needs to see what type of positive influence he had on his students then I suggest they watch 'Lean On Me.'"
Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer also released a statement, saying, "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, Joe Clark courageously stood in the way of anyone who dared to try to lure a young person down the wrong path. Our hearts are deeply saddened by Joe Clark's passing, and our prayers are with family and friends."
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh says if anyone wants to see the influence he had, just watch "Lean on Me."
The former New Jersey principal is also the father of Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs.


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