Story at a glance

  • ”Lean on Me” is based on the story of a former teacher that returns to the classroom to turn a struggling school around.
  • The inspiration for the main character, played by Morgan Freeman, came from Joe Louis Clark.
  • Clark died at 82 on Dec. 29.

A former New Jersey teacher, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, comes back as a principal to turn around a gang- and drug-riddled school. Love him or hate him, the man who inspired the film named after a Bill Withers song has now died at 82. 


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A Georgia native, Joe Louis Clark died at home in Gainesville, Fla., after a long battle with an unspecified illness, his family said in a release on Dec. 29. A tough disciplinarian, the former Army Reserve sergeant ruled Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., as principal with an iron fist. He was known for roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat and expelled 300 students one year, earning him both fans and detractors. 

''They should shut their Vaseline lips up and stop flapping them because they can't do anything,'' he told the Tribune in response to criticism from the City Council for his methods.


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Released in 1989, “Lean on Me” touched off a national debate around education and an argument over whether Clark’s approach was effective. While the school saw slightly higher test scores and college attendance in the years Clark was principal, the retention rate for students dropped. But supporters pointed to the challenges facing urban educators as the root of the problem. 

"Isn't it something, that this little black Newark welfare boy is the most popular man in America right now?" Clark told TIME once.

President Reagan reportedly offered Clark a White House policy advisor position, which the family said he turned down over his "dedication to his students and community." He retired the next year and worked another six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark and wrote a book, "Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools." The film was pitched as a television series with John Legend and LeBron James attached to the project, but was never picked up. 


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Published on Dec 30, 2020