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

The O’Toole Chronicles: A Tribute to Joe Clark

By Kevin O'Toole, January 05 2021 12:01 am

We recently witnessed the sad passing of Joe Clark. Some may remember Joe as the bull horn using, bat carrying, principal from Eastside High School in Paterson.  In the 1980s movie, Lean on Me, Joe was famously portrayed by Morgan Freeman.  Some say that there was more than just a small resemblance between the movie and the life of Joe Clark. I met Joe in real life many times and can verify that he was larger than life.

When I was Chief of Staff to the Essex County Executive, we had a serious problem at the Essex County Youth Detention Center.  The Center was poorly constructed and the juvenile detention officers had their hands full, every minute of every day.  To this day, I submit that YDOs and Corrections Officers have one of the most underpaid and underappreciated jobs.
It took dedicated employees and tough leadership to keep the Center from becoming the final scene in the movie, The Last Castle.

The physical building needed a major remodeling (the place was barely fit for humans) and officer morale was at an all-time low.  The detainees were often animated, disruptive, and it made life a daily challenge.  It was time to go big and bold to bring change to the Center.  I knew something dramatic needed to happen, and fast, to change the current conditions.  Enter Joe Clark, who we hired to lead the Center.

Joe was always immaculately dressed, and his language was precise and measured. Joe was incredibly well read, confident, prepared and astonishingly positive. After the press conference to introduce Joe as the Center’s Director to the shocked public, I reminded myself to always bring a dictionary and thesaurus when talking to Joe.  I remember to this day that he used a phase I certainly had never heard before – “transmogrify the souls.”

As the new head of the Center, Joe was as advertised – tough and controversial – growing both fans and detractors immediately.  Regardless of how you felt about Joe and his tactics, most agreed that Joe really cared about the detainees.  He instituted a litany of reforms, including a mentor program with local pastors and a certified GED program.  I remember Joe repeating the phrase, “we must treat all with respect, even those accused of committing crimes.”

You can look back now and think that some things done then would not pass muster today, but it was undeniable that Joe brought about consequential and far-reaching change.

I remember visiting the Center a few months after he took over.  We entered the building with the Director and all the detainees stood up and said in unison, “Good Morning Director Clark!”  The building was clean, and walls freshly painted.  There was order and a mutual respect. This was a far cry from months earlier when a trip to the Center would not come with any guarantees of safety.

If you really want more details, you can ask his two lawyers, Anthony J. Caruso and Timothy Alexander.

I just wanted to write this column to tell you the little I knew about Joe Clark.

The passing of Joe Clark reminds us that sometimes when confronted with a challenging problem, you need to think way out of the box and take a chance with a larger-than-life personality.

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