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Former Students Remember Joe Clark, Educator Who Inspired 'Lean On Me'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A legendary American educator died this week. Joe Clark was 82 years old. And in the 1980s, he was principal of Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., a school where crime and drug use were rampant. Early in his tenure, he expelled 300 students for misconduct and laid down the law for the rest of them. Motivation and test scores improved. The White House made a job offer in 1988, but Joe Clark declined a national job to stay at Eastside. His work inspired the 1989 film, "Lean On Me," starring Morgan Freeman as Joe Clark.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LEAN ON ME")

MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Joe Clark) I want the names of every hoodlum, drug dealer and miscreant who's done nothing but take this place apart on my desk by noon today. This is an institution of learning, ladies and gentlemen. If you can't control it, how can you teach? Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.

SIMON: Joined now by two of Joe Clark's former students, Thomas and Debra McEntyre. They're married and join us now from their home in Virginia Beach, Va. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEBRA MCENTYRE: You're welcome.

THOMAS MCENTYRE: You're...

D MCENTYRE: Thank you for having us.

T MCENTYRE: ...Welcome.

SIMON: So many of us have seen that movie over the years. Did it capture Joe Clark, the man you knew?

D MCENTYRE: It did.

T MCENTYRE: It did.

D MCENTYRE: Absolutely. Absolutely (laughter).

T MCENTYRE: Every time I hear that clip, it's just - it just brings, like, a flashback to me 'cause I was one of the 300.

SIMON: Well, could you please tell us the story? - because in the movie version of your life, there's the kind of naughty kid and the good kid. Tell us what happened, if you could.

T MCENTYRE: We definitely the product of both sides of the fence with Clark. I was doing the wrong things. I was hustling in the streets, the street life that I was accustomed to by the housing development that I came from. And Clark just did not have it.

Clark used a bullhorn to get your attention. He would say, McEntyre, through the bullhorn. Got my attention. Come here. Oh, boy, what's going on? I had to go to his office. And he gave me my report. He also said that I had to leave - get the stuff out of my locker. You're done.

SIMON: Debra, your version (laughter).

D MCENTYRE: I was one of the good kids, one of Mr. Clark's favorites. When Mr. Clark was there, I felt safe. So I did go to school. I did all that I could. And then when I felt like I was not going to go on the right path, before I could even get off, Mr. Clark put me back on the right track.

SIMON: What difference did Joe Clark wind up making in your lives?

D MCENTYRE: He definitely showed me, you know, and taught me accountability and responsibility.

T MCENTYRE: Yeah. I must agree with the responsibility, the accountability. He kicked me out and in his - in the process of kicking me out, he said, you can always come back to me and talk to me. I'm going to still check on you. And you're not going to allow the excuses that around you - no dad in the house - you not going to allow that to deter you from your success. You have the ability. You're gifted. And although at a young age, I was very upset at him for kicking me out, later on I realized that, wow, don't let these excuses pull you down. You don't have a dad. That's fine. And that's what made him like a father figure.

SIMON: Wow. A father figure in a place that maybe sometimes it was hard to find father figures.

D MCENTYRE: Definitely. And Mr. Clark, I believe, knew that. You know, when he came to school, he came knowing that he had to impart into those who did not have their fathers. And, you know, some didn't even have their mothers.

SIMON: Yeah.

D MCENTYRE: But he always stood firm and stood in the gap for whoever was missing.

SIMON: And I gather you two distinguished alums of Eastside are organizing a tribute, a memorial for Joe Clark. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

T MCENTYRE: I never really got a chance to really thank him. And him to see me and Debra together would have blew his mind. And I really wanted him to see that. I wanted him to be proud of us. And I didn't get a chance to do that. So I said, I believe we should just do a memorial and have the students all say what he meant to them, just sending it off to heaven and saying, look at us. We are your product. You did not fail us. No matter if you kicked me out, you did not fail me. You bettered me.

D MCENTYRE: He's not here anymore to hear it, but his children are, and his grandchildren are. And they need that at this time. I'm so happy about it. I'm excited (laughter).

T MCENTYRE: I am...

D MCENTYRE: Yes.

T MCENTYRE: ...So excited.

SIMON: Thomas and Debra McEntyre from Virginia Beach talking about their great principal at Eastside in Paterson, Joe Clark. Thank you so much for being with us.

D MCENTYRE: You're...

T MCENTYRE: Thank you for having us.

D MCENTYRE: ...Welcome. Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAN ON ME")

THELMA HOUSTON AND THE WINANS: (Singing) Lean on me when you're not strong, and I'll be your friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.