Jim Gearhart remembers Joe Clark’s ‘tough love’
Jim recalled his on-air conversations with Joe Clark, the New Jersey high school disciplinarian who was the inspiration for the Morgan Freeman role in the 1989 movie "Lean on Me" and died on Dec. 29 at the age of 82.
Clark was the director of the Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark when they spoke. It was the position Clark held for six years after retiring from Paterson’s Eastside High School.
“He was a wonderful man to talk with. He knew exactly what he was trying to do,” Jim said during the latest weekly Jim Gearhart podcast and Facebook Live show, presented every Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at Facebook.com/NJ1015. Jim said that Clark also took a lot of criticism for treating kids like adults, “to make productive citizens out of them."
Jim said the criticism of Clark made him think of a line from English writer Jonathan Swift: “When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
The “confederacy” made themselves known to Clark during his time at Eastside, according to Jim, who said Clark was dealing with an atmosphere in which students were purposely causing disruption in the school.
“One time he expelled 300 kids for variously fighting and vandalism, abusing teachers and drug possession. The image that you still see in some of the obituaries is the picture of him with the bullhorn and the baseball bat,” Jim said.
The criticism continued at the Essex County Detention House where he was accused of cruel and unusual punishment when he dealt with teens who were disrupting life at the center, according to Jim.
Among the things this group did was throw human excrement at whoever was walking by. Jim said Clark put them in detention wearing leg irons in an effort to give them a glimpse at their future if they did not straighten up and change their behavior. It was an approach that later became known as “tough love,” Jim said.
“He was trying to challenge them, a term he always used, to be better than they were expected to be because he said quite reasonably they were capable of much more than that. Some of these kids were very smart,” adding that some went on to become chess champions and "better people."
“It may have dawned on them, even at the risk of getting hit in the head with a baseball bat, to straighten up because you can have a future other than trouble or jail,” Jim said.
The Jim Gearhart show is LIVE on Facebook every Thursday at 10:30 a.m., at Facebook.com/NJ1015. Got an idea for an upcoming installment of Jim's show? Meet Jim at Facebook.com/NJ1015 to suggest it in the comments, or email Jim@nj1015.com.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5's Jim Gearhart. Any opinions expressed are Jim's own.