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Lean on Me school head, 83, famed for tough style, loved warmth of Bermudians

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Joe Clark, principal of Eastside High School in Patterson, New Jersey, poses for a photo with his trademark baseball bat (Photograph by Joe McNally/Getty Images)
Joe Louis Clark, centre, with his son Joe Clark Jr, left, daughter Joetta Clark, daughter-in-law Jearl Miles Clark, and daughter Hazel Clark (Photograph supplied)
Hazel Clark, centre, with mother Gloria and father Joe Louis Clarke, is honoured at the University of Florida Hall of Fame (Photograph supplied)

A firebrand school principal in the United States whose tough love approach to pupils inspired the film Lean on Me has died.

Joe Louis Clark was 83.

Mr Clark’s link to Bermuda came through daughter Hazel Clark, a former Olympian and director of sports business development at the Bermuda Tourism Authority.

His two other children in New Jersey were also athletics stars.

Mr Clark, the hard-nosed principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, found fame and controversy for patrolling his school with a baseball bat and a bullhorn, facing down drug users and truants.

He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film, and the family got to know the actor after he visited their home to capture Mr Clark’s style.

Ms Clark said Mr Freeman’s on-screen imitation of her father was uncanny.

She added her father’s fame as a disciplinarian led to a career as a motivational speaker that brought him to Bermuda on “multiple occasions for speaking – he loved the warmth and the hospitality of the people”.

Mr Clark wrote Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools after he retired from teaching.

Ms Clark, who represented her country in Olympic track events three times, moved to the island after she married a Bermudian she met at a lecture during the Marathon Weekend in 2016.

She later used her stellar sports credentials to join the “amazing team” at the BTA.

Ms Clark, speaking from Florida, where her father spent his later years, said Mr Clark was proud of her work with the BTA to attract sports events to the island.

She added: “He said ’What’s most important is you found your path and your reason for being’.”

Ms Clark said her father’s bat-wielding image, which won him the nickname Batman, “terrified” boys who called on the house for her high school dates – but was a symbol of his commitment to the children in his care.

She added: “He was larger than life, but not looking for fame and fortune.”

Ms Clark said: “The bat represented something very significant for him.

“It was an emblem to the young people he worked with that you can play to hit a home run, or you can strike out.”

Mr Clark was also father to Olympian and businesswoman Joetta Clark Diggs, and Joe Clark Jr, also a gifted athlete and director of track and field and cross country at Stanford University in California.

He was also father-in-law to Olympic track athlete Jearl Miles Clark.

Ms Clark said their father saw running as a way to hone discipline.

She added: “Going out there on those lonely miles, in the cold of New Jersey, helped us to develop.

“We’re definitely an athletic family and we can credit both our parents - they did a wonderful job.”

Mr Clark was predeceased by wife Gloria.

He was born in Georgia, but moved to New Jersey with his family aged 6.

He went to Newark Central High School followed by William Paterson College, now William Paterson University, Seton Hall University and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the US Sports Academy.

His teaching style was influenced by his time as a US Army Reserve sergeant and drill instructor.

He started his teaching career as a grade school teacher and the director of camps and playgrounds in Essex County, New Jersey, then became principal of PS 6 Grammar School.

His revival of the school was dubbed the "Miracle of Carroll Street".

Mr Clark earned renown and attracted criticism as Eastside High principal after he expelled 300 pupils for fighting, vandalism, abuse of teachers, and drug possession.

President Ronald Reagan, an admirer, offered him a policy job in the White House, but Mr Clark decided to remain with his pupils.

Mr Clark served six years as director of Essex County Detention House, a centre for juveniles, after he retired from Eastside in 1989.

Mr Clark moved to Gainesville, Florida, where his daughter was at university and enjoyed his later years sporting cowboy boots as a horse rancher.

Ms Clark said: “He really was the figure you see in the photographs – charismatic and tough, but loving.

“I have been really appreciative of the outpouring of support and love from Bermuda.”

Joe Louis Clark, teacher and school principal, was born on May 8, 1937. He died on December 29, 2020, aged 83.

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Published January 01, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated January 01, 2021 at 5:38 pm)

Lean on Me school head, 83, famed for tough style, loved warmth of Bermudians

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