Ronald Tammen’s hectic, demanding, difficult, jam-packed, very busy day, part 1

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Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash

I think by now we’re well aware that Ronald Tammen was a busy person. In addition to his status as a full-time student at Miami, he counseled a corridor full of freshman men in Fisher Hall, he was fairly active with his fraternity, and he played the string bass with the Campus Owls, a commitment that could usurp entire weekends, many times in other towns and states. So, yes, busy he was. But on Sunday, April 19, Ron Tammen was busy to the extreme. In fact, over the past several weeks, I’ve been hearing personal stories from his former acquaintances that, if true, rendered Ron Tammen’s schedule nearly as booked-solid as Scarlett O’Hara’s dance card.

First this caveat: the new revelations that I’ll be presenting in the next two posts were told to me by two men: the first a former Campus Owl and the second a former resident of Fisher Hall. Both people are energetic, lucid, and articulate, and both feel confident in their memories. Nevertheless, at least for now, they alone are my sources.

From the Owl: Ron Tammen was recording at King Records in Cincinnati the day he disappeared.

One thing that I always found curious about the timeline that emerged from previous investigations was that no one on campus seemed to have interacted with Ron Tammen on April 19 before 3 p.m., which, according to Dean Carl Knox’s notes, is when someone supposedly first spotted Ron in his room studying psychology. (How the spotter surmised that Tammen was studying psychology at that hour isn’t clear.) That’s now changed. A retired minister, who in his wilder days played the trombone with the Campus Owls, told me that on the day that Ron Tammen disappeared, the band had spent the morning and afternoon at King Records in Cincinnati making three 78 RPM records—one song per side, six recordings in all. They recorded them as part of a contest submission to DownBeat magazine, a legendary publication still in existence that got its start covering big bands and jazz.

The competition was for the title of best college dance band for that year. The songs the Campus Owls chose to record were: Almost Like Being in Love, Squeeze Me, Deep Purple, Darn That Dream, Taking a Chance on Love, and Celestial Blues, a Woody Herman classic featuring an instrument called the celeste, which looks like a piano, but sounds like bells ringing.

“He was there,” the Owl told me. “In fact, after he disappeared, I’ve listened many, many times to the recordings that we made, and there are a few places where I can hear the bass playing, and I’d say, ‘Well, even though he’s not around, I can still hear him playing.’” (Hopefully, the recordings will be accessible from this website at a future date, however, some hurdles need to be jumped before that can happen.)

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Learn more about the history of King Records at WVXU.

“He was what we called a utility musician,” the Owl said of his past band mate. “In other words, he was not really a soloist, a virtuoso, but he was the kind of person that you could bring in the band because he was reliable, he was steady, he wasn’t a show-off, and he fit in, and he really supported everybody else. We had some prima donnas in the group that really were specialists, but he was just a good, solid utility musician.”

There is one unknown regarding the above story: the time of return. At first, our Owl guesstimated that they arrived back in Oxford at about 5 or 6 p.m., however, that would conflict with Ron’s 3 p.m. study session. In a follow-up email, I asked him if they could have arrived a little earlier based on Dean Knox’s note, and he responded that it was possible.

“All I remember for certain is that we returned to Oxford in the afternoon. I remember that the sky was overcast, so looking back on that day I simply assumed it was late afternoon.”

For corroboration’s sake, it would have been a dream come true to have the recording date printed on the record labels, however, the labels are long gone from wear, tear, and an invasion of mold. Nevertheless, our Owl’s story still rings true, in my view. Not only does it explain why no one on campus had reported seeing Ron until late afternoon, it provides a good reason why Ron would have been talking about the Campus Owls in the dining hall that evening, as Ken McDiffett had told his wife. If he’d been with the Owls all day recording, of course he’d want to talk about their day.

According to the October 2, 1953, issue of the Miami Student, the winner of the DownBeat competition that year was a “West Coast college band,” while Indiana University’s Fred Dale Band took the number 2 spot, and the Campus Owls came in third. What the reporter neglected to mention was that one of the award-winning Owls, the solid utility musician on the bass, was the same person whose whereabouts were unknown to everyone concerned.

Coming next: Part 2, an argument in Fisher Hall’s 3rd-floor bathroom

Footnote: The Owl in this story lives in Houston, which, as you all know, has been deluged by Hurricane Harvey this week. For those who wish to help the city of Houston and other affected communities, here are some options. 

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