By Chris Sheldon | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Joe Louis Clark, the former bat-wielding principal of Paterson’s Eastside High School whose strict disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 film “Lean On Me,” died Tuesday at the age of 82, his family said.
Clark, a longtime resident of South Orange, retired to Gainesville, Florida, died surrounded by his family at his home after a long battle with an illness, they said.
“First serving as a Paterson grade school teacher and the Director of Camps and Playgrounds in Essex County, Clark soon found his calling in administration as Principal of PS 6 Grammar School,” his family said in a release. “Under Clark’s command, the once failing school was transformed into the ‘Miracle of Carroll Street’.”
“Committed to the pursuit of excellence, Clark greeted the challenges presented to him following his appointment as the principal of crime and drug-ridden Eastside High School with eager optimism,” the release stated. “In one day, he expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession and lifted the expectations of those that 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.”
Clark’s tough actions prompted some supporters to call him “Batman,” and also prompted President Ronald Reagan to offer him a White House policy advisor position.
He also appeared on programs including “60 Minutes” and “The Arsenio Hall Show” and was featured on the cover of Time Magazine before the movie “Lean on Me” starring Morgan Freeman memorialized his work.
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.
It was there that he came under fire for putting teenagers in handcuffs and leg irons, but even then, Clark defended his unorthodox tactics.
“They were not abused,” he said at the time. “They were not beaten … they were simply handled in a manner commensurate with their unacceptable behavior.”
The 12 boys, ages 17 and 18, were shackled for two days after several violent episodes in which they hurled excrement at guards, Clark said.
Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, and his family moved to New Jersey, settling in Newark, when he was 6 years old.
After graduating from Newark’s Central High School, Clark continued his education and earned a bachelor’s degree from William Paterson University (then called William Paterson College), then went on to earn a master’s degree from Seton Hall University and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.
“Clark’s post-collegiate career as a U.S. Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor engrained in him a respect for order and achievement, which came to define his more than three-decade career in education,” his family said.
Paterson Superintendent of Schools Eileen Shafer said Clark left an “indelible mark on public education by being fiercely devoted to the students in his care.”
“He demanded more from his students because he believed they could achieve more than what was expected of them,” Shafer said. “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.”
“But in the end, it is the many lives Joe Clark influenced for the better that have become his greatest legacy,” she said. “Our hearts are deeply saddened by Joe Clark’s passing, and our prayers are with his family and friends.”