Home>Articles>Joe Clark, famed Paterson principal and onetime GOP candidate, dies at 82

Joe Clark as principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of the Clark Family.)

Joe Clark, famed Paterson principal and onetime GOP candidate, dies at 82

Portrayed by Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me, Clark ran against LeRoy Jones in 1988 race

By David Wildstein, December 29 2020 9:52 pm

Joe Clark, who won national fame as the unorthodox high school principal in Paterson known for his firm disciplinary manner, died on Tuesday.  He was 82.

Clark’s tenure at as the bullhorn-toting, baseball bat-wielding Eastside High School principal became the subject of a 1989 film, Lean on Me.  He was portrayed by Morgan Freeman.

In 1988, Clark briefly entered politics when Essex County Republican Chairman John Renna convinced him to run for Essex County Freeholder.

He ran in a special election in the heavily-Democratic District 3, which included East Orange, South Orange, Maplewood and part of Irvington.  The contest was triggered by the resignation of Cardell Cooper to become the county administrator.

Clark’s opponent was the chairman of the East Orange Affirmative Action Review Board, 31-year-old LeRoy Jones, Jr.

With the help of state Republicans – GOP operative Jeff Michaels, a future chief of staff to Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, ran the campaign – Clark outspent Jones by a more than 2-1 margin.

While Clark campaigned with his bullhorn and baseball bat, Jones remained low-key and refused to answer a constant barrage of name calling.

Jones beat Clark in a landslide, 29,842 to 16,044, 65%-35%.

Clark later served as director of the Essex County juvenile detention facility in Newark.  He and Jones, who went on to serve as an assemblyman and as Essex County Democratic Chairman, became friends.

“As a teacher and coach at Eastside High School from 1989 to 1998, I saw firsthand the impact of Joe Clark’s legacy on students in Paterson. He challenged every student to reach their fullest potential and to strive for a future they could be proud of,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson).  “His unwavering belief in them made them believe in themselves. He accomplished what every educator sets out to do: make a difference in the lives of the young people who’ll shape our future. It was an honor to be a part of the community he helped build.”

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) said that Clark’s “educational methods have been called unconventional, unorthodox and uncompromising; but his commitment to his students and legacy at Eastside cannot be challenged.”

“Joe Clark dared students to dream as they never had before,” Sumter said.  “He demanded they raise their expectations of what they could accomplish, and in turn academic performance began to exceed expectations. His influence undoubtedly set countless students on a path to success.”

His daughters, Joetta Clark Diggs and Hazel Clark, were both members of the U.S. Olympic Track Team.

This story was updated at 12:32 PM with comment from Wimberly and Sumter.

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