In 1988 he made the cover of Time Magazine. In 1989 the movie “Lean on Me” was loosely based on his unconventional methods as a principal at Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey. Joe Louis Clark was truly an original; an educator who was not afraid to get tough with the tough. He’d walk the halls of the crime and drug-ridden Eastside High with a bullhorn and baseball bat in hand. He knew all the students by name and would greet them with a high-five. He was both highly admired and highly disparaged, yet his tough love methods made a difference. In just one day he expelled 300 students for possession of drugs, brawls, damage to school property, abusing their teachers, or for simply making it a habit of being late or absent from their classes. And thanks to his challenging ways, students did score slightly higher than average at Eastside during the 1980s.

Life After Lean on Me

Joe Clark speaking into bullhorn at Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey
Joe Clark speaking into bullhorn at Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey

Time Magazine noted that Clark’s style was a way to encourage school pride and good behavior. But critics felt that tossing out troubled low achievers just moved the issues from school to the streets. In defense he said he felt that teachers shouldn’t waste time on students who didn’t want to learn.

Author and motivational speaker Dr. Pinky Miller went to Eastside during Clark’s tenure. She penned an authentic book Life After Lean on Me, which shares her experiences having Clark as a principal. In a 2012 interview with Tap into Paterson, Miller referred to Clark as the father figure she never had. “He was the person I could go to with anything,” she said. “That’s why we loved him so much.”

Miller recalled that Eastside was a dangerous place in the 1980s. “I was a scared little freshman, like many,” she said. “East side was the place you could come and get your drugs. There were fights. Students did get their items stolen. If you had expensive sneakers, they would rob you. There were crack vials. That was our reality. There were race riots. There was a lot of stuff going on.”

After Clark’s success at Eastside, he was offered a White House policy advisor position by President Ronald Reagan who was extremely impressed by the way he turned things around at the troubled high school. However, Clark remained dedicated to his students and the community, declining the prominent offer.

Clark became well known country-wide and in addition to being on the cover of Time Magazine, he appeared on television shows like “60 Minutes” and “The Arsenio Hall Show.” But it was the motion picture “Lean on Me” starring Morgan Freeman that made Clark a legend.

Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools

Joe Clark standing in principal's office at Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey
Joe Clark standing in principal’s office at Eastside High School, Paterson, New Jersey

In 1989 Clark retired from Eastside High School and worked as Director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark, New Jersey. He also penned the book, Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, a dramatic memoir detailing how he cleaned up Eastside High School and how, by his direction, parents and principals could work together to clean up their own neighborhood schools.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia in 1938. His family moved to Newark, New Jersey when he was 6. He graduated Newark Central High School and received a 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. He taught at a Paterson grade school in Passaic County, New Jersey, prior to becoming principal of PS6 Grammar School in Paterson.

Joe Clark resided in Newberry, Florida and died at home on December 29, 2020, at the age of 82, after a long, undisclosed illness. He was preceded in death by his wife, Gloria; survived by three children, Joetta, Hazel, and JJ; and three grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell, and Hazel.

In a recent CNN article, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh stated, “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.’”

Morgan Freeman, who starred as Clark in “Lean on Me” said in a statement, “Joe was a father figure to school kids. He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

How has Joe Clark’s tory inspired you? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.