There are moments in some people’s lives that prove to be pivotal. They’re rolling along, minding their own business, steady as they go on a plotted trajectory, and then a metaphorical meteor strikes and their life takes an abrupt left turn. In Charles Findlay’s case, that moment arrived on Sunday, April 19, 1953, at around 10:30 p.m., when he walked into his room in Miami University’s Fisher Hall after having spent the weekend in Dayton with his family.
At first glance, Chuck didn’t know that everything was about to change for him. By all appearances, his roommate, Ron Tammen, would be walking in at any minute and they’d be recounting to one another how they’d spent their weekends. Ron had left a light on, an open book on his desk, and his wallet, keys, and pretty much everything else he owned in the room, and his car was still parked outside. When, after some time, there was still no Ron, Chuck decided he was probably staying at the fraternity house that night and went to bed. He didn’t think much else about it.
The next day, when Ron still hadn’t shown up, Chuck grew a little more concerned. According to one knowledgeable source, Chuck had bumped into Richard, Ron’s younger brother and a freshman at Miami, while walking to class. He told him that Ron hadn’t come home the night before and asked if he knew where he might be. Richard responded that he didn’t know. Later that day, Chuck stopped by the Delt house and asked if Ron had been there the night before. Whoever he spoke with also told him no. We already know how the story ends—Ron never returned and, from that point on, Charles L. Findlay would be remembered as the roommate of the guy in the center of Miami’s most baffling mystery.
The first time I spoke with Chuck was in 2010. I was practically giddy at the prospect of talking with someone whom I’d hoped could finally answer all my questions about Ron Tammen. But, like everyone else, Chuck didn’t feel that he knew Ron very well. They might have been roommates, but they didn’t see each other much. “He was busy,” Chuck told me.
Chuck and I spoke several more times, the last being in the spring of 2015. My notes and transcripts reveal a pattern in which I was doing most of the talking, posing to him a string of questions or filling him in on the latest developments. “Do you remember anything about this (or that) detail?” I’d ask him. And he’d say, “Somewhat,” or “Maybe,” or, his favorite response, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. It was so long ago.” To his credit, he didn’t want to send me on a wild goose chase based on a potentially faulty recollection. Nevertheless, by that time, I’d come to appreciate what a kind and gentle man Chuck Findlay was—always willing to return my call, always happy to listen to my latest hypothesis about what happened to his former roommate.
This past summer, I had reason to contact Chuck again. I wanted to ask him about my recent discoveries, namely about Ron’s possible participation in the Delts’ song practice, the woman from Hamilton, the Campus Owls’ recording session in Cincinnati, and whether he’d heard about a fight between Ron and his brother Richard in the third-floor bathroom. I also wanted to ask him if he remembered walking up to the third floor that night to find out if anyone had seen Ron, an effort to corroborate Hal’s (not his real name) story.
I left a voicemail message suggesting I come to visit him in person. Several days later, I received a call from Chuck’s son David. Knowing that couldn’t be a good sign, I braced myself for the sad news: Chuck Findlay had passed away May 26, 2017, at the age of 85. David also let me know that, in Chuck’s later years, the two had talked at length about Ron Tammen. “Would you be interested in meeting with me instead?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I replied.
We met in a Panera, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and it was there that I more fully began to grasp the toll that Ron Tammen’s disappearance had taken on Chuck Findlay and how it impacted the life he led.
“Ronald Tammen’s disappearance is partly responsible for the person that’s sitting in front of you today,” David Findlay said to me mere minutes into our conversation. David is warm and energetic and he’s a big believer in the interconnectedness of the universe. Plus, he looked so much like his father, it wasn’t funny. We hit it off instantly.
Chuck Findlay was a little older than Ron Tammen. Born on April 1, 1932, he had just turned 21 when Tammen went missing. (Ron was still 19.) Although they didn’t know each other well, they were a good match, because they were similar people: quiet, introspective, and studious.
“The two of them liked each other, got along famously, but they weren’t close,” David said. “They weren’t close. They were roommates and they got along fine.”
After Ron disappeared, Chuck was left to fend for himself for the remainder of the school year—he was never provided with a replacement roommate, which, as David points out, couldn’t have been good psychologically. During Chuck’s junior year, he was once again assigned to Fisher Hall, and this time, his roommate was kicked out during the first semester for stealing tests. Again, Chuck was provided with no replacement. On top of all that, he became ill with mono during the latter part of 1953. He was struggling.
According to David, Chuck internalized Ron’s disappearance in the years that followed. He may have been silently marking off the anniversaries, but he would never raise the subject with anyone.
”He did not talk about it. I mean, it had that much of an effect on him,” David said.
A 1960 anniversary article in the Dayton Daily News, which included comments from Chuck’s mother, supported this observation. Although Mrs. Findlay claimed that Chuck and Ron had been “very, very close,” a point both David and his father would have disputed, she also mentioned that Chuck had been seeing a doctor for a nervous disorder he’d developed after Ron disappeared.
“He still can’t talk about it,” she’d said at the time.
During the summers when Chuck was still at Miami, he’d worked in sales for a hardware store and, later, a furniture store, both in his hometown of Dayton. However, when he graduated in the winter of 1956, he needed a break. He moved to Wooster, a small college town in northeast Ohio, and taught roller skating at the local skating rink. In the 1950s, this might have been comparable to a college grad today moving to Colorado to wait tables or teach downhill skiing. It was a chance for Chuck to get away and clear his head before diving into the lifelong responsibilities of adulthood.
“He and my uncle ran the teaching program through Wooster Skateland for several years, but that wouldn’t have happened if Ron Tammen hadn’t disappeared,” said David. “And that’s where he met my mom. So there’s this cause and effect thing—this ripple, cause, and effect thing.”
After Chuck and his wife married, the two moved to Dayton, where he managed a furniture store, and later, to Michigan, where they ran a roller rink of their own for 25 years. After leaving the skating world, he worked for a local car dealership, driving cars from state to state until Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to drive any longer. When he was 82, he finally decided to retire for good, though the owners told him that he was welcome to work for them for as long as he wanted. He was that loved.
Chuck was a sentimental dad, and he wasn’t ashamed to show it. He was the sort of father who said a prayer and kissed his sons on the forehead at night, whether they were grown adults or not. When the family was younger, he would help his wife hang cookies on the tree on Christmas Eve so the boys could munch on them the whole next day. He would tape record family gatherings so he could capture each word that was said for posterity.
In 1976, when a Dayton television station was producing The Phantom of Oxford, they called Chuck repeatedly, begging him to talk on camera with them. After two months, he finally agreed.
“They had to bring in big cameras and lighting and everything, and I sat in my pajamas, cross-legged, at the entrance to our living room, and sat there and listened to the story,” said David. “And that’s the first time I ever heard it. It gives me chills to this day. And then, the book closed and he didn’t speak of it for decades.”
That would change some 38 years later as David was helping his father become more accustomed to life in the digital world.
“About three years ago, I discovered that video online. Dad was asking me, ‘What’s the difference between Netflix and YouTube?’ And I was explaining the difference, and I said, ‘Everything and everyone is on YouTube.’ So I Googled him on YouTube, and that came up, and we have a Smart TV, and I said, ‘Dad, you want to know what’s on YouTube? Here.’ And I started playing his interview, and he was like, ‘That’s me!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re on YouTube.’”
After watching the video, Chuck started opening up more about his time at Miami: about Fisher Hall’s wobbly plywood floors that made funny sounds when they walked; or the dropped ceilings that would rattle with falling plaster; or how food would be transported by dumbwaiter from the kitchen in the basement to the dining area above; or how he used to carry a bow tie in his pocket so that he’d be able to clip it on for dinner (an occasion for which ties were required) without having to run to his room to change—his own little 1950s life hack.
Chuck also took to keeping a notebook during those years at Miami after Ron disappeared—daily affirmations to help him cope. They were simple sayings, many clichés. Things like: Don’t sweat the small stuff, or The past can only be used to reflect on. It should not be used as a guideline for the future.
David treasures that notebook as an opportunity to see into the psyche of his father after he’d withstood one of the biggest jolts imaginable—perhaps even bigger than death itself. In death, there’s grieving. There’s closure. In a disappearance, there’s a hole, and endless unanswered questions, and the off chance that you might run into that person 30 or 40 years later. Chuck never stopped looking for Ron in crowds or on the street.
“He was 21. And so much of [what’s in the notebook] is who I knew to be my father my whole lifetime. And I think that was the start of it,” said David. “So it was really amazing that this tragedy, for my father, in the end, gave him a deep love for life and a passion for living life to the fullest that may not have been if not for that fateful night so very long ago.”