It can be a jolting experience when a highly credible person I’m interviewing reveals information that doesn’t jive with what’s been said or written on Ron Tammen’s disappearance. If my underlying premise is solid, new details can adjust and resettle around the old, and things can return to normal fairly quickly. My understanding of what happened is slightly altered, but stronger. If, however, the premise is more loosely constructed, full of gaps and leaps, I’d know pretty much then and there that I needed to abandon it and start rebuilding from scratch. Such was the test I faced one recent Thursday morning when everything I thought I knew about Ronald Tammen’s last minutes at Miami experienced a tremor measuring about 7.1 on the Richter scale.
I’d been speaking to a former fraternity brother of Ron’s, whose name had been passed along to me by one of his classmates. He’d just celebrated his 84th birthday, but his voice sounded as if he were in his 60s or early 70s, and his memory was strong and sure on the most minuscule of details.
“The only times that I really saw him was at song practices,” my Delt friend told me (let’s call him Paul), when I’d asked him if he ever interacted socially with Ron. Paul explained that on Mother’s Day weekend, an event in May when students’ moms would descend on Miami’s campus in lavender-scented droves, fraternities would hold a singing competition at Withrow Court. (Withrow, a beloved brick building where dances were held and basketball games played, was demolished last summer.) The competition was the high point of the weekend, and an occasion for which the Delts had been preparing for weeks. It was, Paul let me know, a very big deal.
“The only guy who could carry a tune or who knew anything about music in the Delt house was Ron,” Paul said, so Ron was the Delts’ obvious choice for song leader. Paul also remembers the day and time at which they’d scheduled their practices: Sunday evenings at around 10 p.m., after women’s curfew. (That way, a guy could return from a date and still make it to singing practice.) Sometimes, however, they might opt to hold practice an hour earlier, he said.
With respect to the practice on April 19, 1953, Paul is unsure if it was held at 9 or 10 p.m. It was, after all, 64 years ago.
“But you do remember that Ron was at practice?” I asked.
“There’s no question. I walked home with him,” he responded.
What?, I thought. The seismic rumblings had begun.
“So what happened that night was we had the song practice, and Daddio [the house chef] made hamburgers for us, and then we all broke up,” he said.
Paul then proceeded to tell me how he, a guy named Chip Anderson, and Ron walked back to their dorms on a path that ran from the Delt House, between the Natatorium and Withrow Court, and across what is now the baseball field. They ended near Symmes Hall, the freshman dorm where Chip and Paul lived.
“And we said good night to [Ron] and he walked on. And as far as we know, Dean Knox told me we were probably the last ones that he knows that saw him.”
I’m not going to lie—the entire time that I was listening to his story, I was thinking that he must be mistaken. I wondered if it might have been Richard, Ron’s younger brother, who had walked back with them. That would have made more sense to me. Richard had pledged Delta Tau Delta that spring. I could easily imagine how, as the years rolled by, the part of the brain where memories are stored might replace one Tammen with another one. Or maybe it was Ron whom he walked home with but just on a different night.
But his last comment—the one about Carl Knox, the dean of men who headed up the university’s investigation—suddenly gave me pause. That’s a memory that would stick hard and fast.
“This is all new information,” I stammered. I said something about there being no news accounts putting Ron at song practice at 10 p.m—that everything I’d read stated that he returned to his room at about 8 or 8:30 after picking up the sheets.
“It’s possible that he was back in his room at 8:30,” he replied, “but the point is that if he was there at 8:30, he wasn’t in for the night. He had left and come back out to the Delt house for song practice. There’s no question—he wasn’t back before 10:30 p.m.”
Before my conversation with Paul, song practice was one of the more benign details of the case. In 1956, Murray Seeger of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had reported that, about a week before Ron disappeared, he had been asked by the fraternity to step down as song practice leader because his other activities were getting in the way. “But this did not seem to upset him unduly—he took a place in the singing group and let someone else direct it,” wrote Seeger.
Whatever, I thought, after stumbling on that passage for the first time. Ron Tammen was a busy guy. Being the bar-setting overachiever that he was, he was probably a little embarrassed to be asked to step down, but also relieved to give up one of his many obligations. Maybe he was experiencing some stress, but name one college sophomore who hasn’t. In my seven-plus years of research into Ron Tammen’s disappearance, I honestly don’t think I spent more than ten minutes thinking about the Delts’ song practice and how it might have fit into the equation.
Now, all of the sudden, I was being told that Ron was actually at song practice on the night of April 19 and walking back to Fisher Hall at around 10:30 p.m.? That was too much to wrap my head around at that moment.
“There was information in the news saying that Ron led the song practice, but then like a week before he disappeared, he was asked to step down. Do you remember that?” I asked.
“Not at all.”
“…and that somebody else took over?”
“I can’t imagine. We didn’t have another guy that could carry a tune, Jenny. There’s no question. We couldn’t have. That’s not true.”
So here was my predicament: Paul’s story had never before reached the light of day, yet he was crystal clear on the details, many of which were aligned with what I already knew (or thought I knew). He told me that he remembered Ron teaching wrestling moves to a few other guys that night as they waited on their burgers. He recalled a light snow falling, barely covering the ground, yet enough so that he had noticed his footprints as they walked to the dorms.
“I remember it well because I went through all kinds of interrogations on this. Dean Knox talked to me several times. There was a member of the police force in Oxford who also spoke to me about it, so I remember the details pretty well of what happened that night.”
After the call ended, and I had time to fully process what he’d just told me, questions began churning in my brain regarding the implications of this new version of events:
- If Ron was going to song practice after he changed his sheets, why would he tell Mrs. Todhunter that he was going straight to bed?
- Why didn’t someone from the fraternity tell Chuck Findlay, Ron’s roommate, that Ron had been at song practice, when he asked them on Monday if anyone had seen him?
- If Ron had arrived at his room at around 10:30 p.m., how did he not run into Chuck, who also supposedly arrived at the dorm at that time?
- And finally, how did this fairly explosive detail get past every single reporter who’s ever written about the case, particularly Murray Seeger, who actually had a conversation with someone on the very topic of song practice?
One thing was obvious: if Ronald Tammen had arrived at his dorm room at 10:30 p.m., there was no way that he’d be able to hike the 11 or so miles to Seven Mile and knock on Mrs. Spivey’s door before midnight. Not without a little help.
Coming soon: my search for corroborating evidence