Tough-love principal who used drill sergeant skills to clean up a NJ high school remembered

Joe Clark's story inspired a generation of students and educators and was brought to the big screen in the Morgan Freeman movie 'Lean on Me,' He died this week at age 82.

Updated: December 30, 2020 - 11:44pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Bullhorn and baseball bat in hand, Joe Clark inspired a generation of educators and students as the unorthodox principal who adapted his skills as a drill sergeant to reform Paterson, New Jersey's failing Eastside High School.

His no-nonsense approach to education pressed students in the 1980s and 1990s to become more disciplined, "work hard for what you want" and refuse to succumb to the ills of urban plight.

His journey, which inspired a movie on the big screen, came to an end this week when he passed away after a long illness. He was 82.

Clark characterized Eastside High School as a "caldron of violence" in 1982 and set out to change it. An Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor, he declared war on the drugs and crime that riddled the school and set a course for students to succeed. 

"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,"  his family stated in a press release released Wednesday annoncing his passing. 

"Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide. Steadfast in his approach, Clark explained that the bat was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run."

Actor Morgan Freeman, who played Clark in the 1989 movie "Lean On Me," celebrated Clark on Wednesday as “a father figure to school kids” who "was the best of the best in terms of education,” according to the Associated Press

The family's press release said that Clark's "unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods at Paterson, New Jersey's Eastside High School inspired the" movie. 

Clark opposed affirmative action and "hocus-pocus liberals" according to the New York Times. The outlet noted that on CBS's 60 Minutes in 1988, Clark remarked: “Because we were slaves does not mean that you’ve got to be hoodlums and thugs and knock people in the head and rob people and rape people. No, I cannot accept that. And I make no more alibis for Blacks. I simply say ”work hard for what you want.'"