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Joe Clark, principal who inspired ‘Lean On Me,’ passes away at 82

Clark succumbed to a longtime illness on Tuesday (Dec. 29) and was surrounded by family, a statement said.

Joe Clark AP

Joe Louis Clark — the famed New Jersey principal who inspired the 1989 film Lean On Me — has passed away at 82 years old. In the 1980’s, Clark received nationwide attention for turning around the crime and drug-riddled Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey with his disciplinarian measures and devotion to his students.

As a statement from his family noted, Clark once expelled 300 students in one day for “fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession.”

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

In 1988, Clark and his discipline-heavy tactics were featured as the cover story of TIME Magazine. The following year, actor Morgan Freeman won multiple awards for his portrayal of Clark in Lean On Me. Clark also published his own book, Laying Down The Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools, in 1988.

Due to his success at the high school, Clark was also offered a policy advisor position at the White House by President Ronald Regan. After retiring from Eastside, Clark served for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House — a juvenile detention center in Newark.

According to the statement, Clark passed away on Tuesday (Dec. 29) surrounded by family after succumbing to a long battle with an undisclosed illness. Clark was a longtime resident of South Orange, New Jersey, but had retired in Gainesville, Florida, his family said.

Associated Press reports that Clark is survived by his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ; and his grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Gloria.

“Paterson has lost a legend,” Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh told CNN of the news. “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.”

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