Rest In Peace to Dr. Joe Clark, who died at age 82 on December 29, 2020. He dedicated his life to school reform, educating and inspiring inner-city students born with two strikes against them. His legacy of excellence, persistence, and community activism continues with his talented family.
Remember the cult-the classic movie, “Lean On Me” starring Morgan Freeman as Dr. Joe Clark, a New Jersey high school principal who uses tough love, discipline and unorthodox, controversial tactics to bring order to one of New Jersey’s most violent and educationally dysfunctional schools?
The movie’s plot is based on Clark’s battle as an inner-city principal in Paterson, New Jersey, whose Eastside High School is at risk of being taken over by the state government unless students improve their test scores.
In one memorable scene, Principal Clark is arguing with the fire inspector about illegally chaining the school’s doors to keep out unsavory types.
While holding a Louisville Slugger in his hand, Cark says: “They used to call me Crazy Joe…Well, now they can call me Batman.”
Most people viewing the movie shook their heads in awe and said, “this guy doesn’t give up.” Being that his daughter, four-time Olympian Joetta Clark Diggs insists her dad was the same man when pushing the limits of education to create a better tomorrow for students, as he was motivating his kids to achieve in the classroom and on the track as distance runners, it’s no wonder she’s grown up to become a world–changer with an emphasis on developing successful student athletes.
Before retiring in 2000, Clark Diggs was considered America’s premier middle distance runner for over three decades. Some experts call her The G.O.A.T. of 800m running. A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Clark Diggs was ranked among the elite American runners for over 20 years and ranked Top 10 in the world nine times.
“For 28 years I ran and was at the top of my career 15 years of that time,” Clark Diggs told The Shadow League. “What that meant was that a lot of hard work, focus and dedication went into being at the top of my game for such a long time.“
In fact, at the age of 37, Joetta set personal best times and had her highest career ranking of fourth in the world.
How did she manage that?
“The key to me was that I was able to stay healthy, Clark Diggs added. “I also had very good coaches. They brought me along slowly and that was one thing that kept me around.”
Clark Diggs was coached by her brother, J.J. Clark, who is the Director of Track & Field at the University of Tennessee. J.J., a standout track star in his own regard, won two national championships and three SEC titles as the UT women’s head coach from 2003-09 before taking over the combined programs in 2010.
J.J. also coached two other 800m runners: his wife, Jearl Miles-Clark, and his younger sister, Hazel Clark. Jearl and Joetta were both ranked No.1 and No. 2 in America at one point. Fittingly, Team Clark is known as the “First Family of Track & Field” because of their dominance.
Today, Joetta is a highly sought-after motivational and inspirational speaker and continues to share her talents and unique experiences at sports, marketing, consulting and public speaking seminars for organizations across the country.
“I just spoke to the Rutgers women’s basketball team a few weeks ago,” Clark said. “Motivating people to strive beyond the limits that they think they have is what I live for.”
As President of Joetta Sports & Beyond, LLC, Joetta delivers messages of health, fitness and empowerment to corporations, colleges, medical programs and civic organizations. She works diligently raising funds to provide free fitness, track & field camps and life skills programs for children throughout the country. Joetta’s also hosted and produced a cable fitness show for kids called Fitkidz, NJ.
She is the author of Joetta’s “P” Principles for Success: Life Lessons Learned From Track & Field, and the Executive Director of the Joetta Clark Diggs Sports Foundation (JCDSF), which promotes involvement with physical activities for school-aged children and provides opportunities and education for children in the sports and entertainment industry, which extend beyond being an artist or performer.
As her plentiful track career reached its twilight, Diggs increasingly adapted the principles of her parents to her life and began receiving props for her unwavering and devoted social service.
In 1997, Joetta was chosen as Sports Illustrated Hometown Hero for her work with youth, and in 1998 she received the Visa Humanitarian award for her involvement with children. Clark Diggs also received the New Jersey Pioneer Women of the 90′s Award, but her most prestigious and deserving accolade came in January of 2014, when Joetta was officially crowned royalty at the 6th annual New Jersey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
It was a fitting culmination to a journey that began in the pre-riot streets of Newark, took her around the world and back to build her broken home into a burgeoning community once again.
Shortly after her induction, Clark Diggs shared her fondest memories, experiences and hopes for the future with The Shadow League.
J.R. Gamble: What’s been your motivation all of these years?
Joetta Clark Diggs: My driving force was me. When I say that, a lot of people ask as I do my travels and do my speaking; how does one stay motivated? Well, motivation is something that comes from within you and I was motivated to maximize my skill set. The driving force was I wanted to get better and better and do what I could with my God-given talents. I enjoyed what I was doing so my plan was to try and do better, make more teams, run faster and make more money. All of those things worked together. Because I was able to have success and enjoyed what I was doing it allowed me to stay in the sport for a long time.
JR: How do you balance athletics, family life and business?
JCD: Being an athlete taught me a lot of things. It taught me about being focused, being disciplined, making sacrifices and being able to work hard and smart, so when I made the transition from athletics to my business, it was a natural transition. The skill sets I learned from being an athlete, I applied them to my business and my family. I set different goals for both.
I just went after them the same way I did with my sports. In track I train, so for the business I studied and got the right employees. For the family, I make sure we have the right structure and value systems being taught to my daughter. You make sacrifices and make sure you have the finances in place to make sure you can do the things you need to do. It’s the same mental approach and that’s why it came quite naturally for me.
JR: Why did you start the Joetta-Clark Diggs foundation?
JCD: I believe that to whom much is given, much is required. I always said that, and I think the foundation was a way for me to give back to the community. JCDSF focuses on life skills, obesity, bullying, nutrition and it introduces the different careers that we have in the sports industry. By me being an athlete and at one time a commissioner of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority at the old Meadowlands…
Over the 10-year period that I was there, I made contact with different sports entities and I just thought it was time for me to give back. It’s a pleasure to give kids scholarships that have 3.0 GPA’s, run track and field and have community service. So I’m not an athlete anymore, but I’m still making sure that athletes that are coming up can benefit from the foundation, and kids in schools can benefit from having a gym in my program…we have a gym program. As you know there is a direct correlation between health, fitness and education, so what we try to do is make sure that the fitness component is still in school and that will help the kids academically.
This year we will have our 9th annual Sports Extravaganza in September, highlighting my foundation and the kids who benefit from it. Usually, we have a black-tie event with about 400 people in attendance.
In the past, we have had former NFL players such as Bart Oates and Harry Carson (NY Giants), and track & field heavyweights such as Gail Devers, Roger Kingdom, you name them and they’ve been at the Extravaganza. We hold it at the Hyatt in New Brunswick.
JR: How was it growing up with an iconic figure like Dr. Joe Clark as your dad?
JCD: Well my mother Jetta was an iconic figure of sorts as well (laughter).
JR: Yes, but she didn’t have a movie made about her.
JCD: That’s true…My dad was basically the same way that you saw him in the movie and the news clippings. No nonsense was the way he was at home and education was the forefront. We traveled and were exposed to different activities and cultures. He wanted us to run cross country. He pointed us in that direction and basically said “just because no one (of color) has done it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”
So we started running distances at that time. We would run the 800 meters and then the 1500 meters. Not a lot of black Americans were running the distance at that time. Just the Kenyans. So what he did was he put us in those distances and we trained and stayed there and did well.
My brother was a state champion and he went to Villanova University. My sister was also a state champion and a graduate of The University of Florida, so athletically we all did well and academically we all graduated from college and did grad studies and things like that. My dad made sure that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And what you saw him try to implement in the school system, he lived that at home as well. A lot of times people are one way in public and then their households are dysfunctional, but that wasn’t the case at all for us.
JR: What was it like being raised in Newark, NJ?
JCD: We grew up there until the riots came and then we moved to South Orange. But my basic foundation was there. You have to remember the time frame when Newark, NJ wasn’t the place it is now. The dynamics and demographics were altogether different when I was growing up. It wasn’t until the riots came and it changed and had a little lull and it’s trying to be rebuilt now. With that said my training and running and all that started in Newark and the toughness that I got from there stayed with me. As I got older I got more refined but it’s still a basic toughness that you have to have in life, in business and being an athlete and that was definitely developed early on in my childhood and as I got older and went to Columbia High School, graduated went on to college and then traveled all over the world. There’s a certain peace…that edge that stays with me now that definitely developed when I was in Newark.
I call it, “shaking things up.” I think so often people forget where they come from and me with my foundation I wanted to make sure that kids of any ethnicity had these services available. It doesn’t matter what color you are or what you are dealing with; bullying or other health issues – it was important for me to use my sports as a platform to try and shake things up and make a change for the better.
It’s difficult sometimes but we have to get grants and funding to be in these school’s districts so we work very hard because the foundation tries to focus on doing these programs for free and that depends on outside funding. Sometimes these school districts do pay us to come in and implement our program but the bottom line is that we do very fun, effective and safe programs in the schools and our goal is to make sure kids are benefitting from them. We reach about 10,000 kids per year and we have given over $50,000 of scholarship money since the inception of the foundation.
JR: You have competed in four Olympics, which is rare for an American athlete. What are your best moments?
JCD: In this country it’s difficult to stay around that long. Other countries, they just put you on the teams so it’s easy to make a team as long as you hit the qualifying mark. But in this country, we have to qualify every four years to make the team so you won’t see too many athletes competing in that many Olympics and hanging around for 20 years to make the team. But there have been a few like Jackie Joyner Kersee and Carl Lewis. My sister-in-law has been to five.
As far as my best Olympic moments, every Olympics was a special moment. The Seoul, Korea festivities in ’88 was special because it was my first Olympics. The ‘92 Games was special because I made the Olympic finals and it was the first time an American had done that in a long time. It was also a special moment for me because The Dream Team was there and it was an opportunity for me to catch up with some NBA players I went to college with and played in my conference that were on the team. Charles Barkley went to Auburn and all of the other SEC guys that were big at that time. I went to
UT, so it was cool that they remembered me from the circuit. Atlanta in 1996 was special. I didn’t run well but it was at home. In 2000 it was the most special because my sister and sister in-law were in the same event and it was the first time a family took all three Team spots in an Olympic event and I was coached by my brother so that was a shining moment in my entire family’s Olympic careers.
JR: Give me two quick anecdotes about some legendary athletes you’ve been around?
JCD: One great story would be about Jackie Joyner-Kersee, arguably “The World’s Greatest Athlete,” and definitely Top 10, including men. We all grew up together making junior teams and they always used to tell me that I look like her. One competition, we were together and we were signing autographs and this guy came up to me and said, “Jackie, Jackie.”
I said, “No. I’m not Jackie, I’m Joetta.” He made me sign her name and then she signed my name on her picture. Even though we tried to tell him what the deal was, he didn’t believe us so the big story was that I signed her name and she signed my name, but it was in front of each other and to this day, that is pretty funny.
Another time, I had an opportunity to talk to 1968 Olympic long jump world record holder Bob Beamon. He came to one of my Sports Extravaganza’s and he was talking about his jump down in Mexico City, and the big thing was that he didn’t expect to win the gold.
His teammate Ralph Boston was supposed to do better but when he hit the mark he knew it was going to be a good one and when he landed he just kept hopping and hopping. He didn’t want the jump to be over (laugh). He was putting into perspective the demonstrations that were going on there as well. I got a chance first hand to hear from someone that was there about the athletic part and also the political ramifications of the ’68 games
JR: Any regrets never winning an Olympic medal?
I have a bunch of world championships medals and I often say, “I didn’t get the gold medal from the Olympic Games, but I got the gold medal of life.”
I’ve traveled around the world for free and gotten an extensive college education for free. But the only reason why I say that is because I don’t have a gold medal (laughs)… If I had one, I probably wouldn’t have that as a motto.
JR: I feel you. Who are the three greatest Olympic athletes that you’ve gotten to see in person?
JCD: That’s a tough question. There are so many. Carl Lewis, Alberto Juantorena (Cuba), Jackie Joyner.
There’s also Teresa Edwards, who’s a five-time Olympian in basketball. It’s hard to give just three.
JR: What’s your opinion of how PED’s has stained the sport of track and field?
JCD: I can go back to the days of the Iron Curtain when a lot of the East German and Eastern bloc countries were doing drugs..in ’76, ’82, ’84, ’88 and then you fast forward to ’96 and 2012 even. The problem is that athletes are always trying to do better and now that the money to be made is so much, the athletes have no shame in their games.
With that being said, even though they’re trying diligently to catch them, the athletes are always going to be a step ahead. It’s just the way life goes if you look at baseball, football, basketball and golf…all these different sports where people use PEDS.
The goal for me is to tell people that it doesn’t pay to cheat and if you do cheat and get caught don’t act like you didn’t do it when you get caught. The most discouraging thing for me is when I know people are doing things and then they get caught and point the blame at other people and to me that’s a problem.
So drugs will always be here, the athletes will always try to do something to get more money, get more contracts, and get ahead and encourage more excitement. But the bottom line is you can’t fool yourself. You can fool everybody else but eventually, you have to look in the mirror and ..shame on you. So my family didn’t use drugs and did the best we could with our natural, blessed talent. When we go to bed at night we can rest easy. The biggest thing is I’m a role model and more importantly I have a daughter so I have to set a good example for her as well.
JR: Did you feel medals were stolen from you?
JCD: When I really look at medals being stolen would be in ’92 when they ended up catching two girls and my seventh place became a fifth-place finish. But other than that I was really off the mark that it wouldn’t have mattered. But that was one year I did think about that but God has a plan. I never got a medal but I was a fearless competitor and when they saw me they knew they would have to be on their A-game and they said,” aww man we’re gonna have to run today!”
I have a lot of world championship medals, so when I’m having a weak Olympic moment of regret, I go look at one of those. All in all, I think I came out ahead.