Joe Louis Clark, an uncompromising educator who made national headlines by roaming the halls of Paterson’s Eastside High School wielding a baseball bat, has died at the age of 82.
Clark died Tuesday at his home in Florida, surrounded by family, after a long illness, his family said.
Before meeting with the Reagan administration, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and inspiring the 1989 biopic “Lean on Me,” Clark arrived at the troubled high school in 1982 and quickly cracked down on students and faculty.
Over a six-year tenure as Eastside’s principal, Clark was both lauded and criticized for his tough approach.
After a year at Eastside, the bullhorn-toting Clark had expelled 300 students for poor grades and spotty attendance. But he raised the expectations of the remaining students, “continually challenging them to perform better,” his family wrote.
He said his signature bat was not a threat but a choice: “A student could either strike out or hit a home run.”
In 1986, Clark chained and padlocked the school’s doors, saying he wanted to keep “hoodlums and thugs” out of the building. Fire officials said the practice threatened the safety of students and teachers and ordered the locks to be removed.
His tough disciplinary methods were not reserved for students. Vaughn McKoy, who attended Eastside in the 1980s, remembers Clark calling teachers out in the hallways.
“He was an equal opportunity offender in that regard,” said McKoy, who credits the administrator’s support with his later success at Rutgers Law School, his career as an attorney and his recent service as Paterson’s business administrator. Clark wrote the foreword to a book authored by McKoy in 2013.
“He was a strong African American male influence, of which we did not have many,” McKoy said. “For me, he was an inspiration. As Black Americans, we can differ about the impact Joe Clark had on us.”
Born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8, 1938, Clark moved with his family to Newark when he was 6 years old.
He attended William Paterson University (then William Paterson College) and later settled in South Orange, where he raised his family and spent much of his life.
But it was the few years he spent as a drill sergeant in the Army Reserves that “engrained in him a respect for order and achievement” that defined his career in education, his family wrote.
“Even the students who were subject to tough love — I don’t know if they would say anything bad about him,” McKoy said. “Because, if they’re honest with themselves, it was their own behavior. If you didn’t go to school to learn and you were disrupting people who were trying to learn and you didn’t want to go to class — you just wanted to smoke and drink and cause trouble — why should anyone be tolerant of that?”
Clark left Eastside in 1989, the year “Lean on Me” was released, and became director of the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center.
Clark later retired to Gainesville, Florida. He was predeceased by his wife, Gloria, and leaves behind his children, Joetta, Hazel and JJ, and grandchildren, Talitha, Jorell and Hazel.
Nicholas Katzban is a breaking news reporter for NorthJersey.com.
The San Diego Monitor-News has been serving Black San Diego since 1986