Joe Clark, Tough School Chief Portrayed in ‘Lean on Me,’ to Speak at UT

Joe Clark

Joe Clark

KNOXVILLE — In September 1982, during the first day of class at Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., a student was stabbed. In 1983, things would be different. The school’s new principal, Joe Clark, would be the reason why.

After two years under his leadership, the formerly raucous institution was declared a model school by New Jersey’s governor. Clark himself was named one of the nation’s 10 “Principals of Leadership” in 1986.

Clark — whose story was told in the film “Lean on Me” — will be at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on Feb. 11 to share his strategies and successes. Sponsored by the Chancellor’s Council for Diversity and Interculturalism, Clark will speak at 7:30 p.m. in the University Center auditorium.

His speech will be preceded by a 6 p.m. panel discussion on “Diversity: Are We There Yet?” Panelists will include members of student organizations.

“Lean on Me” will be shown three times prior to Clark’s appearance. All of the showings are free and open to the public:

  • Feb. 4, 6 p.m., University Center Auditorium
  • Feb. 8, 6 p.m., 251 Hodges Library
  • Feb. 10, 6 p.m., 253 Hodges Library

Clark — the father of UT track coach J.J. Clark — is a former Army drill instructor and has always seen education as a mission. He worked while attending high school to support his mother and siblings. He then went on to get his bachelor’s degree from William Paterson College and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University. He also received an honorary doctorate from the U.S. Sports Academy.

Clark disagrees with those who believe the learning process is disrupted by tough discipline. Clark said he held high expectations for students, challenging them to develop habits for success and confronting them when they failed to perform. On a single day during his first week at Eastside, Clark expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, drug possession, profanity, or abusing teachers.

Clark’s achievements were the subject of a Time magazine cover story, two “60 Minutes” profiles, and appearances on television news and talk shows all over the world.

President Ronald Reagan named him a model educator and offered him a White House post as a policy adviser. Clark turned it down.

After seven years as principal of Eastside High, Clark resigned in 1990 and hit the lecture circuit.

In August 1995, he was appointed director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark, N.J. During his six years as the center’s director, he continued his challenging work to bring change to the community that brought him up.

When he accepted the position, he said, “I will stay until I have brought about change. I can’t think of anything more noble.” He retired from the position in 2001.

Clark shared his story in his book, “Laying Down the Law,” and has spoken to teachers, school boards, parents, businesspeople and students.

His message is one of pride in self.

“Every day, pride in self and school must be reinforced. Every day, the value of academics must be demonstrated,” he said.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu)

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