Joe Clark, Tough New Jersey Principal Who Inspired 1989 Film “Lean on Me,” Dies at 82

Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey, poses for a photo in the school hallways. (Joe McNally / Getty Images file)

Joe Clark, the imperious disciplinarian principal of a troubled New Jersey high school in the 1980s who gained fame for restoring order as he roamed its hallways with a bullhorn and sometimes a baseball bat, died on Tuesday at his home in Gainesville, Fla. He was 82.

His family announced his death but did not specify a cause.

When Mr. Clark, a former Army drill sergeant, arrived at Eastside High School in Paterson in 1982, he declared it a “caldron of violence.” He expelled 300 students for disciplinary problems in his first week.

When he tossed out — “expurgated,” as he put it — about 60 more students five years later, he called them “leeches, miscreants and hoodlums.” (That second round of suspensions led the Paterson school board to draw up insubordination charges, which were later dropped.)

Mr. Clark succeeded in restoring order, instilling pride in many students and improving some test scores. He won praise from President Ronald Reagan and Reagan’s education secretary, William J. Bennett. With Morgan Freeman portraying him, he was immortalized in the 1989 film “Lean on Me.” And his tough-love policies put him on the cover of Time magazine in 1988, holding his bat. “Is getting tough the answer?” the headline read. “School principal Joe Clark says yes — and critics are up in arms.”

Mr. Clark, who oversaw a poor, largely Black and Hispanic student body, denounced affirmative action and welfare policies and “hocus-pocus liberals.” When “60 Minutes” profiled him in 1988, he told the correspondent Harry Reasoner: “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.”

To get control of a crime-ridden school, Mr. Clark instituted automatic suspensions for assault, drug possession, fighting, vandalism and using profanity against teachers. He assigned students to perform school chores for lesser offenses like tardiness and disrupting classes. The names of offenders were announced over the public address system.

And, in 1986, to keep thugs from entering the school, he ordered the entrance doors padlocked during school hours. Fire officials responded by having the locks removed, citing the safety of students and teachers. A year later, the city cited him for contempt for continuing to chain the doors.

“Instead of receiving applause and purple hearts for the resurgence of a school,” Mr. Clark said after a court hearing, “you find yourself maligned by a few feebleminded creeps.”

Though the padlocking episode put him in conflict with the Paterson school board, his no-nonsense style led to an interview for a White House job in early 1988. Before turning it down, he insisted that if he took the job it would not be because of any pressure from the board.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Richard Sandomir