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New Jersey principal Joe Clark, who inspired film 'Lean on Me,' dies at 82

The educator's unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 film.
Image: Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey, poses for a photo in the school hallways.
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 former principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, who was the inspiration for the 1989 film "Lean on Me," died Tuesday at age 82, according to a family press release.

The get-tough persona that Clark embodied — he was known for carrying a wooden baseball bat through the halls of the troubled school — was controversial and landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1988. He was portrayed in the movie by Morgan Freeman.

The much-discussed bat was not for hitting students but to symbolize the potential of the baseball diamond, where one could hit a strike or a home run, his family said.

Paterson Superintendent of School Eileen Shafer said in a statement that Clark "left his indelible mark on public education by being fiercely devoted to the students in his care" and "demanded more from his students because he believed they could achieve more than what was expected of them."

"But in the end, it is the many lives Joe Clark influenced for the better that have become his greatest legacy," Shafer said.

Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, and moved during childhood to Newark, New Jersey.

He served as a U.S. Army drill sergeant, which his family said "engrained in him a respect for order and achievement, which came to define his more than three-decade career in education."

Clark declined a White House policy advisor position offered by President Ronald Reagan because of his "dedication to his students and community," his family wrote.

Clark died at home in Gainesville, Florida, surrounded by his family, who said he "succumbed to his long battle with illness."