“Joe was a father figure to school kids," said Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Clark in the 1989 film. "He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

Joe Clark
Credit: Yvonne Hemsey/Liaison/Getty Images

Joe Clark, the tough-as-nails New Jersey principal who Morgan Freeman portrayed in the film Lean on Me, died at his Florida home surrounded by loved ones on Tuesday. He was 82.

"Joe Louis Clark, the baseball bat and bullhorn-wielding Principal whose unwavering commitment to his students and uncompromising disciplinary methods at Paterson, New Jersey's Eastside High School inspired the 1989 film Lean on Me, has passed away," Clark's family said in a statement. "A longtime resident of South Orange, NJ, Clark (82) retired to Gainesville, Florida. He was at home and surrounded by his family when he succumbed to his long battle with illness on December 29, 2020."

Freeman remembered Clark in a statement released to EW on Wednesday.

“Joe was a father figure to school kids," the Academy Award winner writes. "He was the best of the best in terms of education.”

Credit: Everett Collection

Lean on Me, directed by John G. Avildsen, was loosely based on Clark's real-life experience as an inner-city principal whose students were challenged every day to become better versions of themselves through their commitment to education.

His family reflects proudly on Clark's legacy, who they say "expelled 300 students for fighting, vandalism, abusing teachers, and drug possession and lifted the expectations of those that remained" which he viewed as an investment in their futures. Much like Freeman did in the hit film, Clark, a former U.S. Army Reserve Sergeant and Drill Instructor, carried a baseball bat, which earned him both admiration and criticism.

The family's tribute reads, "Steadfast in his approach, Clark explained that the bat was not a weapon but a symbol of choice: a student could either strike out or hit a home run."

After retiring from education, the Georgia-born Clark served for six years as the Director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark. He also authored the book Laying Down the Law: Joe Clark's Strategy for Saving Our Schools, sharing how he helped turn around Eastside High School and how it can be applied to combat crime, permissiveness, and academic decline in schools nationwide. 

Before Clark's death, LeBron James and John Legend announced plans to continue to spread his message in a CW series based on the film.

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