"He was the best of the best in terms of education," Morgan Freeman tells PEOPLE of Joe Clark, who died Wednesday

By Ashley Boucher
December 30, 2020 09:09 PM
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Morgan Freeman, Joe Clark
| Credit: Getty Images (2)

Morgan Freeman is remembering Joe Clark, the high school principal who inspired the movie Lean on Me. 

Clark died at 82 on Tuesday in his Gainesville, Florida, home after a "long battle with illness," his family said in a statement Wednesday.

Freeman, 83, portrayed Clark in the 1989 movie, and on Wednesday remembered the New Jersey educator as the "best of the best."

"Joe was a father figure to school kids," Freeman tells PEOPLE. "He was the best of the best in terms of education."

After beginning his educational career as a grade school teacher, Clark was appointed the principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. His quest to improve the school from within received national attention.

Morgan Freeman in Lean on Me
| Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

"Roaming the hallways with a bullhorn and a baseball bat, Clark's unorthodox methods won him both admirers and critics nationwide," his family's statement said. "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."

A year before Lean on Me was released, Clark appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He later published a book, Laying Down the Law, about his educational approach.

After retiring in 1989 from Eastside High School, Clark went on to work for six years as the director of Essex County Detention House, a juvenile detention center in Newark.

Joe Clark
| Credit: Yvonne Hemsey/Liaison/Getty

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh in a statement Wednesday that the town had "lost a legend."

"Joe Clark spoke strongly and carried a big stick. If anyone needs to see what type of positive impact he had on his students, then I suggest they watch Lean on Me," Sayegh said, according to CNN.

Clark is survived by his three children — Joetta, Hazel and JJ — and three grandchildren: Talitha, Jorell and Hazel. He was predeceased by his wife, Gloria.