Tiger Cleek Reveals Diagnosis, Seeks Support from RTO

“Tiger” John Cleek proudly shows off his industry awards and honors earned over an almost 60-year career.

“Tiger” John Cleek – partner and president of Missouri-based Cleek’s Home Furnishings/Rentals & Sales, former APRO President, and RTO icon – recently revealed he has been diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative, incurable, and lethal neuromuscular disease.

“I was diagnosed just over a year ago,” Tiger shared. “I suffered a couple of stumbling falls around the beginning of 2020, and began losing strength in my left arm. We did a whole lot of testing, and while there’s no one definitive test for ALS, all indications pointed toward it. We went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, and they confirmed I have ALS.”

Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) – also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, nicknamed for the baseball legend who famously suffered from it – slowly robs the body of its ability to walk, talk, swallow, and breathe. Every 90 minutes, an American is diagnosed with ALS while another person loses their life to it. ALS can attack anyone, and there is currently no known cause of the disease. The life expectancy for someone with ALS averages 3-5 years from diagnosis.

From left: John Cleek Jr., his wife Heather Cleek, their daughter Mary Cleek, and Tiger at the RTO World 2019 Fourth Street Live event.

“While this isn’t a diagnosis anyone would ever want, I remain optimistic,” said Tiger. “One thing that has helped me is my men’s Bible study group; we meet every Wednesday, and it has really changed my life. I know my life is in God’s hands, and because of that, I’m not afraid.

“But I’m also not stupid,” he continues, with characteristic wit. “I’m involved in the HEALEY ALS Platform Clinical Trial, which is the biggest thing happening in ALS research today. I get a shot every day in addition to the care plan I’m under with my doctor, Dr. Richard Barohn, who is one of the foremost neuromuscular specialists in the field. It’s a multi-pronged approach, including speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and work with a dietician.”

Tiger with his wife Ann Cleek.

Tiger’s father, Clifton Elmo “Missouri Mo” Cleek and his wife, Wilma, launched Cleek’s Appliance and Food Service in Columbia, Missouri, 65 years ago, in 1956. Tiger began working at the store at the age of 12, and took over the company after Mo’s unexpected death in 1973. Tiger grew the business to terrific success, transitioning from retail to rent-to-own in 1987. John Cleek Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps, joining Cleek’s Rent-To-Own full-time as soon as he graduated from the University of Missouri – Columbia in 1993. Working side-by-side with his dad ever since, John Jr. oversees operations for all locations across mid-Missouri.

Well-known within his community, Tiger has agreed to serve as a local spokesperson for ALS awareness and research. And while his speech is already slightly slurred and he spends time in a wheelchair, Tiger’s telltale sense of humor and his unfaltering devotion to Mizzou remain fully intact.

Tiger adds the inaugural APRO RTO Tiger Award to his other honors.

“Dad has kept a really good attitude about this whole thing,” affirms John Jr. “He’s been extremely upbeat. He knows what he’s got, and he’s dealing with it. We’re just going to keep praying these clinical trials prove to be a success and that the other drugs he’s received help, and go from there. It’s difficult to watch someone I’ve worked with every day, who’s been my boss, my best friend, and my hero go through this. Luckily, we’re a very close-knit and loving family. We do many things together, and we’re doing this together and, in classic Cleek style, we’re tackling it head-on.”

Last year, APRO introduced the RTO Tiger Award, designed to recognize an individual for his or her industry work at the state level. The inaugural award went to its namesake, of course.

“Tiger Cleek represents the best of the best rent-to-own has to offer in terms of passion for his family, his business, and this industry,” APRO Executive Director Jill McClure noted. “He was named as the APRO Rental Dealer of the Year in 1996, in 2016 was honored with our Ernie Talley Lifetime Achievement Award, served as a board member for over a dozen years, and led the organization as APRO President from 2008 to 2010.

Tiger thanks his colleagues for his APRO Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

“But he deserved to also be honored specifically for the very special contribution he made to the rent-to-own industry with the commitment he made to the state associations and the legislative efforts that are important within them,” she continued. “Tiger has been a true champion in this regard, and the APRO RTO Tiger Award honors someone who has championed rent-to-own legislative efforts at the grassroots level and strengthened our state-level industry outreach.”

“Some of the best friends I have in the world, I met through APRO,” effuses Tiger. “I want them to know what’s happening with me, and I want to try to raise awareness and money to beat this thing. The cure is going to come through research, which is extremely expensive.”

From left: John Cleek Jr., APRO Executive Director Jill McClure, and Tiger at the 2017 Heartland of America Regional Tradeshow.

To that end, Tiger and his family are launching their efforts to fundraise for ALS research through The ALS Association’s Walk to Defeat ALS, scheduled for Saturday, August 14, 2021, in Columbia. The Cleeks intend to continue raising funds toward ALS research beyond this event, but see it as a great way for their friends, colleagues, and other supporters to stand with this RTO icon and exceptional man in the fight of his life.

“One thing about rent-to-own is while we might compete against each other, we’re a family,” John Jr. concludes. “We come together as a family, and when one of our own needs some help, we’re there for each other. My dad has given his life – so much time and money and effort – to this industry. Now, we’re asking and hoping for the industry to get behind Tiger and this effort – to contribute what they can to try to help not only him, but also all the other people and families suffering due to ALS.”

For more information about joining Team Tiger for the Walk to Defeat ALS or to donate, please visit http://webkwc.alsa.org/goto/TeamTiger.