Joe Clark, ‘Lean on Me’ Principal, Dead at 82

by Emily Morgan

Joe Louis Clark, the no-nonsense high school principal who inspired the movie Lean on Me,  has died at the age of 82. Clark is now a part of the long list of beloved icons who’ve passed away in 2020.

According to a family statement, Clark passed away Tuesday at home in Gainesville, Fla., after a long battle with an undisclosed diagnosis. Before passing, Clark was surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with the illness, the statement said. 

“Rest In Peace Dad…. I am so grateful for your never ending love,” one of his daughters, former Olympic runner Hazel Clark, wrote on Twitter. 

Morgan Freeman portrayed Clark in the 1989 film, which recounted his businesslike efforts to improve Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ. 

Morgan Freeman Fondly Remembers Joe Clark

Freeman recalled how Clark was pivotal in getting students to cooperate while shooting scenes. 

“He got up in front of the students and said, ‘You know, they’re going to be making the picture, and we are the stars. So let’s give them every help we can.’ And by George, that’s what they did,” Freeman said.

Before Clark became the principal, many students riddled the school with crime and drug use. 

This activity came to a screeching halt when the former Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor came on the scene. Clark once expelled 300 students in one day for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drugs.

“Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark’s unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide,” the statement said.

Clark appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1988 before the movie’s subsequent release in 1989. Clark also published a book, “Laying Down the Law,” about his educational approach at the Paterson high school.

Even though his discipline style earned him national headlines and made him controversial as some felt he was too aggressive, his supporters often justified his action by pointing to positive results. 

After he retired, Clark moved from South Orange, New Jersey, to Gainesville, Florida, the family said.

“Paterson has lost a legend,” Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said. “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.

On Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy paid tribute to Clark for having “dedicated his life to educating New Jersey’s youth.”

“He will be missed,” he tweeted.