He was 83, according to his daughter Hazel Clark, who said that other reports of his age as 82 were in error. She confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
A self-described “poor black welfare boy from Newark,” Mr. Clark grew up in poverty and often found refuge, as well as heat on cold winter days, in the public library. In that place, his daughter said, he discerned the power of education to improve his life, as well as those of others.
After a turn as an drill sergeant in the Army Reserve, he began his career in New Jersey’s Passaic County, where he worked first as an elementary school teacher. From 1982 to 1989, when he presided over Eastside High in Paterson, Mr. Clark was arguably the most famous principal in the United States — the subject of glowing praise from admirers who saw him as a savior of foundering youths, as well as withering criticism for tactics his detractors regarded as draconian and even cruel.
Bedecked in a three-piece suit and gripping a baseball bat in his hands, he struck the stance of a martinet for a portrait that ran on the cover of Time magazine in 1988. Seemingly omnipresent on television and the lecture circuit, he trumpeted his campaign to expel scores of troublemaking students he decried as “leeches, miscreants and parasites” in order to make his school more hospitable for those who wished to study.
“My job as principal was to make sure the environment of the school was conducive to learning,” he once said in a speech. “I was everywhere, in the halls, in the bathrooms. I do not fear anything. I walk down the street and even the dogs fear me. I am not going to permit a handful of individuals to disrupt the tranquility, the serenity of an educational institution.”
Declaring himself “conservative in about everything I do,” he won accolades from the Reagan administration for his efforts to right the course of his school. On one occasion, he padlocked the doors during the school day in violation of fire codes, in what news accounts described as an effort to keep drug dealers out of the building. (Confronted with a court order, he unlocked the doors.)
Such actions, along with his colorful vocabulary — education officials, he told the New York Times, “have the combined brain power of an amoeba” — provided plentiful material for the filmmakers who brought his story to the screen in director John G. Avildsen’s “Lean on Me.” Mr. Clark was portrayed by Morgan Freeman, whose performance in “Driving Miss Daisy,” also released in 1989, would garner a nomination for best actor in a leading role.
“He’s a good actor but I don’t think anybody can fully portray me,” Mr. Clark told the Associated Press as filming of “Lean on Me” got underway. “There’s only one Joe Clark.”
The film grossed $16 million in its first two weeks, according to the Chicago Tribune, and brought even greater attention to Mr. Clark, despite its depiction of a miraculous academic turnaround that was not entirely accurate.
The film’s release coincided with Mr. Clark’s departure from Eastside: In 1989, he was suspended after dancers wearing sequined bikinis and G-strings were permitted to perform at a school assembly celebrating the film’s release.
In a memo cited at the time by The Washington Post, Paterson city officials described him as a “loose cannon” whose tenure as principal at Eastside “cost the city of Paterson . . . more than it has achieved.” Mr. Clark, who was not present at the assembly but had approved the program, stepped down shortly thereafter following heart surgery.
He conceded that he had “not been able to get my test scores up as high as I would like.” But he did manage, he said, “to bring about discipline and order and an environment that’s conducive to learning.”
The terms of his departure, he quipped to the Chicago Tribune, recalled “the wild West.” “You bring a hired gunman in,” Mr. Clark observed, “he cleans up the city, then you boot him out.”
Decades later, he retained his critics, as well as his defenders.
The education scholar Jonathan Kozol, writing in his 2005 book “The Shame of the Nation,” reported that “average test scores” at Eastside “briefly rose a bit because the kids who scored the lowest now were gone” through the many expulsions on Mr. Clark’s watch.
“The Paterson ‘turnaround’ had been suspicious from the start,” Kozol wrote. “It had sounded too good to be true, and it turned out that this was so.”
Chester E. Finn Jr., an aide to Education Secretary William Bennett during the Reagan administration and later president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, said in an interview that “instead of trying to turn kids around,” Mr. Clark was “trying to turn a school around.”
“His focus was on the institutional performance and the requirements for the institution to be successful instead of a colossal failure,” Finn said, “and that led him to take the steps he thought were necessary to change the institution.”
Joe Louis Clark — he was named after the heavyweight champion — was born in Rochelle, Ga., on May 8, 1937, his daughter said. When he was six, his family moved to New Jersey, where he received a bachelor’s degree from what is now William Paterson University and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University.
After leaving Eastside High, he became a prolific public speaker, calling on African Americans — in sometimes inflammatory language — to pull themselves out of poverty. He decried what he called the excuses made for Black youths as “a racist phenomenon . . . emanating from the civil rights pimps and hustlers, and white liberals.”
“I like to tell the white liberals, ‘Shut up, you’re a bunch of lying hypocrites,’ ” he once told the Baltimore Sun.
Mr. Clark’s marriages to Jetta Clark and Hazel Gibson Clark ended in divorce. His third wife, Gloria Norman Clark, died in 2019. Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Joetta Clark of Hellertown, Pa., and J.J. Clark of Palo Alto, Calf.; a daughter from his second marriage, Hazel Clark of Bermuda; and three grandchildren. Both daughters were Olympic track and field athletes, and his son is the director of track and field and cross-country programs at Stanford University.
Mr. Clark was the author with Joe Picard of the book “Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark’s Strategy for Saving Our Schools” (1989).
In 1995, he became director of the Essex County juvenile detention center in New Jersey, an overcrowded institution that had earlier been placed under federal supervision. He worked 12- or 13-hour days in the facility, which he said risked being overtaken by gang insurrections, telling the Times that “when I leave . . . this old accumulation of granite, I’ll know that I have made a difference.”
Mr. Clark stepped down in 2002 following criticism of his use of physical restraints, including shackles and cuffs, and allegations that he had restricted several detainees to their cells for 37 consecutive days.
“Some situations require a Mother Teresa, some require Dirty Harry,” he once told “NBC News. “Quite candidly, sometimes I’ve had to be Dirty Harry.”