Joe Clark, Tough Principal at New Jersey High School, Dies at 82
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.
“I refuse to let a bunch of obdurate, rebellious board members run me out of this town that I’ve worked in so assiduously for 27 years,” he told The Washington Post in 1988. A Post headline called him “The Wyatt Earp of Eastside High.”
Joe Louis Clark was born on May 8, 1938, in Rochelle, Ga., and moved with his family to Newark when he was 6. He earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now William Paterson University, in Wayne, N.J., and earned his master’s at Seton Hall.
After serving as a drill instructor in the Army Reserve, he started his education career as an elementary-school teacher and principal in New Jersey and then as director of camps and playgrounds for Essex County, N.J. Then he was appointed to turn Eastside High around.
“A school’s going where the principal is going,” William Pascrell, the Paterson school board president, told the North Jersey newspaper The Record. “Eastside is a school ready to take off. Joe Clark is the guy who can do it.”
In 1989, his final year at Eastside, Mr. Clark spent time away from the school promoting “Lean on Me” and was on the road when a group of young men stripped down to their G-strings during a school assembly. Mr. Clark was suspended for a week for failing to supervise the gathering.
He resigned from Eastside in July 1989 two months after heart surgery.
After six years on the lecture circuit, often calling for rigorous academic standards, Mr. Clark resurfaced as the director of the Essex County Youth Detention Center in Newark. Again his tactics drew fire. Both the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission and the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services criticized him at different times for excessive use of physical restraints, including shackling and cuffing some detainees for two days.
Mr. Clark stepped down as director in early 2002 after the juvenile justice commission accused him of condoning putting teenagers in isolation for long periods.
His survivors include his daughters, Joetta Clark Diggs and Hazel Clark, who were both Olympic middle distance runners; a son, J.J., the director of track and field at Stanford University; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Clark’s image got a dramatic reimagining in the climax of “Lean on Me.” As Mr. Clark, Mr. Freeman is sent to jail for violating fire safety codes, only to persuade students rallying for his release to disperse. (He’s released by the mayor in the movie.)
Mr. Clark never went to jail, and the film’s director, John Avildsen, admitted that the scene was fictional.
“Now, if he hadn’t taken the chains off the doors in reality,” Mr. Avildsen told The Times in 1989, speaking of Mr. Clark, “and if he had gone to jail, then what happened in the movie could very well have happened.”