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Principal Joe Clark, portrayed in classic film ‘Lean on Me,’ dies at 82

Legendary Eastside High School Principal Joe Clark was portrayed by actor Morgan Freeman in the classic film, “Lean on Me.” (Image source: YouTube/South Orange Public Library)

Joe Clark, who’s been immortalized as the baseball bat-wielding principal in the classic movie Lean on Me, died on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. He was 82.

Clark succumbed after a long battle with an undisclosed illness at his home surrounded by family in Gainesville, Florida, according to NJ.com.

Clark became an instant national sensation and hometown legend when Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman portrayed “Crazy Joe,” the tough-minded principal who transformed Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, in the 1980s. 

The educator and author immediately became widely beloved and hated after he expelled 300 students when he took over the downtrodden and crime-ridden Eastside High in 1982.

“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, deviant behavior in those schools,” Clark told CNN back then.

That move, however controversial, set the tone and laid the foundation for Eastside High to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and achieve success.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, 150 miles south of Atlanta. At 8, he moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he later graduated from Newark Central High School. He earned an undergraduate degree from William Paterson University and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University. He also was bestowed with an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.

It was Clark’s time as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor that informed his ideology that unyielding discipline would help young people achieve their dreams. He would later chronicle his educational exploits in the book, Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools. 

Clark was predeceased by his wife, Gloria, who died in 2019. He is survived by his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel.

Though he has transitioned, Clark’s legacy lives on in the movie Lean on Me and in the hearts of the students who learned under his leadership in the 1980s.

“He was the best thing that happened to that school,” Arlinda Crutchfield, who was a sophomore when Clark arrived at Eastside, told NJ.com. “His methods were done out of love for the young Black community, and they worked. He was so genuine. I will always remember how pleasant he was. I looked forward to seeing him in the halls with his bullhorn because everything time he saw me he called me by my name. I don’t know how he remembered it, but he did. I had such a good experience in high school, and because of him I can say that I am proud to have went to Eastside!”

Flip the page to view one of Clark’s lectures in which he expounds on his philosophy of incorporating tough discipline in the learning process.

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