'Lean on Me' Principal Joe Clark Dead at 82

Bat-wielding high school principal Joe Clark has died. The Patterson, New Jersey educator who inspired the film 'Lean on Me' was 82 years old.

Joe Clark

Image via Getty

Joe Clark

Joe Clark has died at the age of 82. The tough-minded principal who shifted the operation of a troubled New Jersey high school made headlines at the time for his disciplinarian approach, eventually inspiring the 1989 film Lean on Me. The bat-wielding administrator was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the substitute-teacher-wheeling-an-AV-cart classic. 

Clark's family shared news of his passing in a press release, saying the retired educator died at home in Gainesville, Florida on Dec. 29, surrounded by his loved ones. Clark had a long career in education, eventually declining a role in Ronald Reagan's administration to stay on in the New Jersey school system. 

"Clark's dedication to his students and community led him to decline the prestigious honor, and his larger-than-life career continued to spark conversations across the country," his family explained in the press release. 

Clark's approach—and his striking figure carrying a baseball bat through the halls of his New Jersey high school—earned him nationwide coverage. He appeared on 60 Minutes and the cover of Time, sharing stories of inner-city high school to a crime-obsessed, paranoid country. Clark's family shared that the bat was not meant to intimidate, but was a metaphor for the decisions that faced his students.

"The bat was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run," they explained.

Speaking of excellence through sports, Clark's three children all became accomplished track and field athletes. His daughters Joetta Clark Diggs and Hazel Clark both competed in the Olympics, and his son Joe Clark, Jr. is currently the director of Stanford University's track program. 

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