I recall attending a screening of director John G. Avildsen’s (The Karate Kid) latest movie Lean on Me in a Prattville, Alabama two screen movie theater with my best friend back in March of ’89. Going into the theater that day, I only had the roughest idea as to what the film was about. I was a big enough of a nerd that my chief cause for attending this film was because I was a big fan of the Bill Withers song the movie producers had co-opted as the title for their new film. Oh sure, I had a sense of the plot – a tough as nails yet empathetic high school principal (Morgan Freeman) turns his bottom of the rung high school into a scholastic achievement – but that was secondary to the song and using the film as an excuse for me to get out of my parent’s house for a couple of hours to have some fun. But leaving the theater that day, I felt inspired and appreciative of what it takes for a teacher to be not simply adequate but to be good. And the shining example of it all, I marveled to learn, was the guy whom Freeman essayed so well who was – get this – an actual person named Joe Clark whose only weapons in life were a baseball bat, a bullhorn and a whole lotta compassion and understanding. It was an early example of inspiration in my life.
The above makes this doubly sad news from our pals at The Hollywood Reporter this morning as it has been reported that the man who inspired not only his school but the entire nation, has passed away at the age of 82 in Gainesville, Florida after a lengthy illness.
Joe Clark was born in Rochelle, Georgia, on May 8 of 1938. Joe and his family migrated to Newark, New Jersey when he was just six years old. From there, it was onward and upward for the young Clark who would go on in quick succession to graduate from Newark Central High School, receive his bachelor’s degree from the esteemed William Paterson College, got his master’s degree from Seton Hall University and, exhaustingly, receive an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy. If you didn’t feel like a piker before reading all of Joe’s many accomplishments, you just might now.
It was the U.S. Army where Joe Clark took his education and melded it with a high regard for achievement and order, becoming an Army reserve drill instructor and sergeant.
It was during his tenure as principal of PS 6 Grammar School – a school at the bottom rung of accomplishment – that Joe Clark made a name for himself, transforming the failing school into what in later years his family would refer to as the “Miracle of Carroll Street.” From there, it was on to a national recognition with the superlative work as a principal he did at Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. The tough as nails Clark summarily expelled 300 students for fighting, hurling abuse at teachers, drugs, and vandalism. He walked the halls of Eastside with a heart of gold, but just in case that didn’t entirely win the day, he also carried with him two items that became trademarks for him: A baseball bat and a bullhorn.
His story was a sensation, becoming a huge box office hit when Lean on Me was released in early 1989, and Clark himself for a few years became a real life celebrity. He continued to speak on the virtues of never giving up on the youth of our world, writing a book called Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools.
Joe Clark is gone, but his words and actions, it’s a safe bet, will continue to motivate and inspire people from all walks of life. Our condolences to the Clark family.