Ronald Tammen was a sophomore business major from near Cleveland who disappeared from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, one snowy Sunday evening in April 1953. As the story goes, he was last seen near his room in Fisher Hall before he went missing. His roommate, who had been away for the weekend, returned later that evening to find the lights on, the radio playing, and a textbook open on Tammen’s desk. He’d left all of his possessions behind, including his wallet, his car, and the string bass he played in the campus dance band. For the past seven years, I’ve been investigating Tammen’s disappearance in an effort to shed new light on — and possibly even solve — the mystery of what happened to him. The following is one detour I took in the process.
The instant I saw the photos, I knew that I was in for a long slog with a new addiction. I’d already been searching for the boy—Ronald Tammen—for several years by that time, but now I would need to find the girl too. The two scenes, freeze-framed in black and white, had managed to survive one thrilling day that had come and gone ages ago—a day when stomachs fluttered and a pair of teens had adorned tux and gown with the weighty expectation of looking better than they’d ever looked in their young lives. A day when a mystery girl had accompanied Ronald Tammen to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom.
In the first shot, Ron and his date are faced forward, their eyes squinting into the sun. Her dress is white chiffon with a tiered bodice and simple jewel neckline. A similarly colored wrap hugs her neck and shoulders, bolero-style. Her corsage, an orchid, is enormous, bound to bother as the evening progresses. Her short hair is newly permed, the tight Lilt curls framing her face. (In cruel contrast, Ron’s hair glistens with product, an effort to tame his natural waves.) She is a dazzling girl next door, and anyone can see by her unprovoked smile that she’s been anticipating this moment for weeks. That smile might have been what had led Ron to ask her to the prom in the first place. She seems to be genuinely nice.
Ron is standing to the right of his date. Their shoulders are touching, possibly for the first time. He’s wearing a white jacket and shirt with a perfectly knotted black bow tie. A carnation pinned to his left lapel is the same deep shade of gray as the handkerchief peering out of his pocket—probably crimson in real life. He’s dashing without really trying. A half smile on his lips and a slight tilt of his head give him swagger. If someone had told me I was looking at a youthful Paul Newman before he made it big, I would have believed it.
It’s the second photo, the one snapped when neither of the pair is quite ready, that draws me in most. Ron’s sister Marcia, who would have been eight, is standing in front of Ron and smiling at the camera, an ornery, lopsided grin. Ron’s date is turned toward Ron, while Ron faces forward and is looking downward. His date’s smile has dimmed a little and she appears to be looking past Ron, perhaps in response to his expression, which is…what? It could be simple shyness or modesty, self-conscious embarrassment at the prospect of exchanging a glance with someone he doesn’t know very well. But there’s something else. Sadness? A pang of worry? His head is bowed as if he’s done something wrong.
“Do you happen to remember her name?” I’d asked Marcia when she’d raised the topic of Ron’s senior prom with me one spring day in 2011. We were sitting in a Denny’s in Cleveland, our inaugural meeting. It would be two more years until I had the actual photos in my hand, but the subject had always intrigued me.
“Grace,” said Marcia. “But I couldn’t tell you her last name. She was one of the girls who lived down the street.”
“Was she in Ron’s class?” I asked.
“I don’t know. She could have gone to a parochial school for all I remember.”
It was a start. I’d already bought several Maple Heights High School yearbooks on eBay—covering Ron’s sophomore, junior, and senior years. Ron had even signed a couple of them—a big, loopy signature in perfect cursive. It would be easy enough for me to leaf through the pages of the 1951 issue, Ron’s senior year, stopping only at the Graces, and then asking Marcia to help me narrow the field to the one and only Grace to grace Ron’s arm at the prom.
Grace was an uncommon name back then, unlike the Carols, Jeans, and Peggys that populated the pages. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Grace in Ron’s senior class. There was one Grace in the junior class, a Grace P., and there appeared to be no Graces in the sophomore class either, though I barely looked at that section. The students seemed so young. You’d think that I would have tried to track down the lone Grace immediately, but I didn’t. In my mind, if Ron could have taken anyone to the prom, as so many of his friends had claimed, there really wasn’t any reason for him to look beyond his own age group. Or possibly, I had already locked onto what Marcia had said: that Grace may have attended a parochial school. Her comment had reminded me of a similar remark made by a former classmate of Ron’s when I’d asked her if she’d remembered Ron ever dating anyone.
“Not anyone from our school,” she’d told me. If there was a dance, Ron was the type of guy who would bring a girl from another school, she’d said.
A nearby Catholic school would certainly qualify as another school. But the possibilities were too wide open. I put Grace on the back burner and continued my main pursuit—trying to figure out what had happened to Ron.
In the spring of 2013, Marcia and I were catching up over coffee at a Wendy’s near her new hometown, a farm community in northeast Ohio. It was one of our usual rendezvous spots whenever I came to visit. As my list of discussion topics was winding down, she said that she’d been doing some digging in preparation for our meeting. She turned to a carryall bag and began pulling out some of her most cherished possessions. There were 8” X 10”s of Marcia and her four brothers—stunning high school senior portraits that, for as long as Marcia could remember, had been lined up on a bookcase in her parents’ home, the same place where Mr. Tammen used to put his hat at the end of the day. There was a photo of her mother Marjorie when she was probably in her 20s, her eyes as big as a doe’s and her hair in a flapper-esque ‘do.
There was a yellow-bound report that Marcia had written when she was a junior in high school. Titled “The Tammen Ancestors,” it described the origins of the two sides of her family and included a chart filled with relatives’ names, many of which had already become familiar to me. Marcia’s narrative described how the Tammens (on her father’s side) and McCanns (on her mother’s) had conducted their lives—where they had lived, how they had been employed, and whom they had married and conceived. There was one exception: Ron Jr. His life had been summed up in one forlorn sentence: “Ronald Henry Tammen Jr. was born July 23, 1933.”
I could understand why Marcia had so little to say about Ron. What else could she have written about him? That he had disappeared from his second floor room in Miami’s Fisher Hall when he was a sophomore and no one had seen him since? That would have sounded too tragic. Besides, everyone in Maple Heights had already heard the story by then. There was no reason to bring it up here. Also, at that time, the family still believed that Ron was alive, and there was no telling what had happened to him. For all Marcia knew, he was a grown man with a new name and identity living in a sunny climate and raising a family of his own—one that would never make it onto her chart. By then, memories of her brother were receding so fast that one of the few things that Marcia could state unequivocally was that he had indeed been born.
The next item that Marcia pulled from her bag was a picture in a frame. I immediately recognized it as a painting of Jesus standing outside a cottage door, knocking. The artist was Warner Sallman, an American painter who had created many of the iconic religious images that I’d seen since I was a kid in Sunday school. He’d also painted the close-up, profile view of Jesus with shoulder-length hair and beard. I’d seen that image so often in hospitals and nursing homes that I figured it was Jesus. The brown and gold tones made it appear ancient, as if it had been pulled from 2000-year-old Jerusalem rubble. But no, it was painted in 1940 by a guy from Chicago. Marcia’s picture, the one titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” was painted a couple years later.
It wasn’t until Marcia had turned the frame around that I understood its significance. Marcia had won the picture as a child in a competition at church after memorizing 18 verses of the Bible. At the top, Marcia’s instructors had inked in the date of the competition: April 19, 1953, the same day that Ron had disappeared. What they’d written beneath the date gave me a chill: “Only one life—‘Twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Did the universe already know what was about to happen? Was Ron’s life about to come to an abrupt end that day?
That’s not why Marcia had held onto the print, however. The painting itself had spoken to her and, for that reason, accompanied her throughout her life, tacked to the assorted walls of the houses and apartments she’d resided in since she was ten. Only after a friend pointed out the date to her did she realize that she’d been living with that picture for as long as she’d been carrying the grief of losing her brother.
As we prepared to leave, Marcia mentioned that she also had a couple videotapes that I was welcome to borrow. She suggested I drop by her home the next day to pick them up, along with all of the other materials that she said I could take with me to duplicate. As I drove away the following day, my priceless cargo in a manila envelope on the passenger seat, it occurred to me that Marcia and I had turned a corner. I had finally earned her trust. Out of all the people who had written about Ronald Tammen’s disappearance—and after 60 years, there were quite a few—I had managed to convince Marcia that I was in it for the long haul. We both wanted the same thing: to find out what happened to her brother, and we would be allies in that search.
The first video, titled “The Phantom of Oxford,” was a half-hour documentary produced in 1976 by a TV station in Dayton. I’d already seen that tape, a re-dredging of all of the details surrounding the mystery, and featuring interviews with some of the main players. The second video was shorter and more recent. It had been produced by a Cincinnati news team when investigators were trying to determine if a dead body found in Georgia in 1953 could have been Ron. (It wasn’t.) Within the first few seconds of the news segment, there it was: a photo of Ron and his date to the high school prom. Moments later came the second photo, the one of Ron gazing downward. Grace was on the front burner once again.
I screen-grabbed stills of the prom photos along with several other shots of the family and had a few copies made of each. I then mailed a set to one of Ron’s classmates and former neighbors who agreed to let me know if she or anyone else she kept in touch with recognized Ron’s date. After several weeks of hearing nothing, I revisited the possibility that his date might have attended a parochial school. I recalled that one of Ron’s friends whom I’d interviewed a couple years earlier had attended a Catholic high school in the area.
“Do you happen to recognize this person?” I asked him in a Facebook message. “I think her first name is Grace.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” he replied.
Of course, in the back of my mind I’d always wondered if Grace might not have been her name after all. I knew how my memory worked when it came to the names of people I used to go to school with. Some names I could call up, but others stayed on the tip of my tongue, stuck at the first letter. Perhaps her name was actually Gladys or Gloria. I ran my theory past Marcia, who said no, she was quite sure it was Grace.
Her certainty increased my momentum. I found an online database of yearbooks, which made it possible to search electronically for all of the Graces who attended schools in the area, both public and private.
The first person to turn up was Grace P., the same girl I’d spotted in the 1951 Maple Heights yearbook as a junior. Her senior picture looked somewhat like the Grace in my photo, though not identical. I found her married name from a brother’s obituary and gave her a call.
No one picked up, so I began to leave my message: “Hi, I’m looking for a person named Grace, who graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1952. I’m writing a book about the disappearance of Ronald Tammen…”
“Hello?” Grace P. interrupted.
That was par for the course. Early in my project, I was pleased to discover that the people I was attempting to track down for interviews—people in their late 70s and early 80s—picked up their phones no matter what, and usually on the first or second ring. But within the last year or so, many were letting their calls roll over to voicemail. The robots and scam artists had finally jaded them too. When I mentioned the name of Ronald Tammen, however, the screening ended, and we were talking one-to-one. Ron Tammen was my instant in.
“You’re writing a book about Ronald Tammen?” she asked.
“I am,” I said, and then explained a little about my project. “I don’t suppose you went to the prom with him, did you?”
“No,” she laughed. She said she hadn’t dated very much in high school. She had an Italian father who was pretty strict in that regard.
I’d already known her answer would be no. If she’d attended the prom with Ronald Tammen, she would have volunteered that information immediately, without my asking. I followed up with a question that I asked anyone who had known Ron in high school or college. Unfortunately, it was a question that usually yielded disappointing results.
“What kinds of memories do you have of Ron back then?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” she said. “I was just a junior when he was a senior, so I didn’t know him very well.”
That was common. Ronald Tammen wasn’t exactly a well-known guy. Sure, everyone knew him—they’d seen him playing in the orchestra or singing in the choir. They admired him. But very few had stories to share.
I was back to square one. I returned to the database, and searched for more Graces in the Cleveland area during the 1950s. This time, another Grace from Maple Heights popped up, one I hadn’t noticed before. Her name was Grace H., and her last name, with its shortage of vowels, sounded Eastern European. She was standing in the back row of the home economics club in the 1951 yearbook. She’d managed to fly below the radar because, for whatever reason, she hadn’t appeared in any of the class photos that year—not with the seniors and not in the homeroom shots of juniors, sophomores, or freshmen. Her smile was unmistakable though, as were her curls. She was the one.
I checked an online phone directory on the off chance that she was still going by her maiden name, but came up empty. After conducting a few additional Google searches, I landed on a contact page for several alumni of Maple Heights High School. Miraculously, among the names included under the class of 1952, there was Grace’s. In addition to the discovery that her new last name is gentler to the ear and by far more common, there was an email address to a customer service account at a small business in Georgia. Even if she were no longer working there, I figured, someone might be able to point me to her home address and phone number, which someone promptly did. Roughly an hour after finding Grace’s name online, I was dialing her phone number. A couple seconds after that, I was talking to her machine.
“Hi, I’m writing a book about Ronald Tammen…,” I began.
There was a beep and some jostling and then a woman’s voice. The voice was deep and full, nothing like what I’d imagined from the girl in the photos. It was the voice of a woman who’d been around the block several times over. It was a voice like some of my rowdier aunts on my father’s side—not fancy, not terribly feminine, but warm and jovial and strong.
“You’re writing a book about Ronnie Tammen?” she asked, the word Ronnie revealing the utmost in familiarity, the word Tammen accented with disbelief. “He took me to the prom!”
Deep down, I felt myself do a double cartwheel.
“I was just thinking about him yesterday!” she exclaimed. And as I filled her in on my book project and the hoops I’d jumped through to find her, Grace began to cry.
Grace and I continued our conversation the following Friday, once I’d had the chance to pull together the million or so questions I wanted to ask her, and once she had time to recover from being blindsided by a certain ghost in her past. Marcia was right—Grace had lived in the same neighborhood as the Tammens, though her time there wasn’t exactly carefree. Grace’s mother had been a single parent in an era when divorce was considered a suitable reason for shunning in the eyes of neighbors.
“My mom was the anomaly,” she told me. “My mom was the one they talked about. They didn’t have any reason to talk about her. All she did was work all the time. But that’s what single moms do—they work all the time.” I was beginning to see where Grace had gotten her moxie.
“So the year that Ron took you to the prom—he was a senior and you were a junior?” I asked. I was basing this on the date provided on the alumni page I’d found online.
“I was a sophomore,” she corrected me.
Impressive. A junior going to the prom with a senior is one thing, but a sophomore and a senior? That was a much bigger deal.
Grace described herself as an average student, adding that, other than her involvement in the home economics club, she wasn’t a joiner. (This is in contrast to Ron, who signed on to just about everything that was offered.) Still, she managed to break into a circle of popular girls whose ranks included several cheerleaders and one majorette. So many years later, it was hard for her to explain her reason for being in that particular clique.
“Maybe I was the nice one,” she offered. She admitted that she was pretty and well-liked. In 1952, the year after Ron graduated from high school, she attended the prom with the star of the football team, the highest rung there is on the high school social ladder.
Grace and her friends called themselves the “slick chicks,” a name she regretted many years later after she became a member of the National Organization for Women. When she spilled that detail, I thought about how surprised Ron would have been to see his friend—pretty, well-liked, average Grace—marching in front of the White House in support of a woman’s right to equal pay. Another surprise for him would have been the news that she’d gotten married right before her senior year of high school.
“I was precocious,” she said. “The first one who got married, the first one who had babies, the first one who got a divorce.”
“Cool,” I said with a laugh.
No, I didn’t think it was cool that she’d gotten married and divorced at such a young age. I’m not a total jerk. It was that my perception of Grace had been changing by the minute. Here was a woman who had made a few bad gambles in her life and still managed to come out for the better. A survivor.
But that was all post-Ron. When Ronald Tammen asked Grace to the prom, she was still young and naïve and, like him, didn’t have any dating chops to speak of. She doesn’t exactly remember when she first became aware of Ron, but if her Maple Heights yearbooks are any indication, it was in 1950 during her freshman—his junior—year. In 1948 (when she was in the seventh grade and he was in the ninth), he signed his name—that big, loopy signature—but nothing more. His signature doesn’t appear anywhere in her 1949 yearbook. But in 1950, he penned the following: “To the girl with the smile in her voice.”
Grace and Ron had dated a few times before and after the prom, sweet little meet-ups featuring movies and ice cream, but when he took her to the prom, that was the high point of their relationship. She was over the moon with excitement.
“I thought I was a big deal because a senior took me to the prom,” she said. “He looked really good, and he was smart, and he was musical. I really liked that. It was a good package.”
“What do you remember most about that night?” I asked.
“It seems to me that it was in a big, very nice hotel, and the weather was very nice and there was a big patio, like an outdoor space,” she said. “I just remember walking outside and it was so…the weather was perfect and it was a beautiful night and, oh my gosh, you know? It was just…”
At that critical point, our phone connection broke up, and I didn’t catch her last few words, which she followed up with a girlish giggle. I knew where she was headed though. It was sublime. It was dreamlike. It was a moment so special that, above all of the other moments that had come and gone that evening, it seared itself into her consciousness, forever occupying brain space for as long as she’d live.
Several months after our conversation, while preparing her house to go on the market, Grace would discover the program from that evening. The dance had been held in the ballroom of the Park Lane Villa, an iconic building in Cleveland that had started out in the 1920s as a luxury hotel. The date was May 19, 1951, and they’d dined on fruit cup, garden salad, Swiss steak, mashed potatoes, and peas. There were dinner rolls and pie and ice cream, and, to drink, they had their choice of coffee or milk. Grace had saved the program from all those years ago. Grace had saved the program! So, yeah, it was a special evening.
“Did you ever neck with him in the back seat of a car?” I asked.
“Probably, but not so far that I even remember it because it was not…he was not…” She paused a beat. “In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”
Weeks later, Ron would sign Grace’s yearbook for the last time. In it, he wrote, “To Grace: The sweetest and prettiest sophomore girl. I guess you know how I feel about you and I can only hope that you can go through life having a good time as I had going with you. Best of luck always, Ron.”
There was no formal break-up, although his yearbook sentiment almost conveys a tone of goodbye. Best of luck. She doesn’t recall ever seeing him during his visits home after he started at Miami.
Grace thought about the person she was during those years and what Ron might have seen in her—beyond her smile and her voice.
“He was good looking and he was on the wrestling team. He was somebody around school,” she said. (And by somebody, she means someone of substance.) “He could have taken anybody to the prom. And the fact that he took a sophomore says that he was shy and he was reaching to somebody who was not threatening to him.”
She was devastated when she heard the news about Ron. By then, she was a newlywed with a new last name. In the weeks that followed, she would worry about what might have happened to him, until she eventually concluded that someone he trusted must have lured him to a terrible end. As her life continued moving forward—after she married for the second, and then the third time—she’d think of him every so often, particularly when she read in the news that someone had gone missing. Decade after decade, she continued to carry Ronnie Tammen inside her, protected from view. Protected, that is, until 60-some years after the fact, when a late-morning phone caller seeking information about her friend caused the tears to flow as if it had happened that very week. As if she were the girl from the photo who had just been told that the handsome, perfect boy who had taken her to the prom was nowhere to be found.