HS Principal Who Inspired "Lean on Me" Movie Dies at 82

(Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

The man whose real-life story has inspired generations of American students, and wowed film audiences, has passed away.

Joe Clark was a New Jersey high school principal, and the way he molded the lives of youth under his watch there was memorably portrayed by actor Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film, Lean On Me.


The Associated Press reports that Clark died Tuesday “after a long battle with an unspecified illness,” according to his family:

Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods inspired the 1989 film “Lean on Me,” died at his Florida home on Tuesday after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said. He was 82.

At crime- and drug-ridden Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, Clark expelled 300 students in a single day for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession. That lifted the expectations of those who remained, continually challenging them to perform better. Clark’s unorthodox methods, which included roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, won him both admirers and critics nationwide. President Ronald Reagan offered Clark a White House policy adviser position after his success at the high school.


Morgan Freeman released a statement about Clark’s passing Wednesday, commenting on what the late educator meant to his charges:

“Joe was a father figure to school kids,” Freeman said in a statement Wednesday. “He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

Entertainment industry publication Variety reported on the film that will link the actor and the man he immortalized tor all time:

The 1989 film “Lean on Me” was inspired by Clark, who was portrayed by Morgan Freeman. The film grossed $31 million at the box office and was awarded outstanding motion picture at the 1989 NAACP Image Awards. John Legend, Wendy Calhoun and LeBron James were also set to adapt “Lean on Me” for television in 2018, but the show was not picked up for a pilot.

It added more details on Clark’s own background, one that helped him become the right man to guide students whom most adults in their lives had let down:

Born in Rochelle, Ga. on May 8, 1938, Clark grew up in Newark, N.J. After graduating from Newark High School, Clark received a bachelor’s degree from William Paterson College, as well as a master’s degree from Seton Hall University and an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy. Clark then became a U.S. Army reserve sergeant and drill instructor, which ingrained in him his passion for discipline.

Clark began his career in education as a grade school teacher, and then became a grammar school principal. But he found his true passion when he was appointed as the principal of Eastside High, and pledged to turn the school around.


After word of his methodology spread, Clark appeared on “60 Minutes” and “The Arsenio Hall Show,” which led to his Time cover and “Lean on Me.”


Enjoy this clip, with Freeman as Clark, in an early scene from “Lean On Me”:

RIP, sir.


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