An ode to Joe on his 98th birthday

joe cella hamilton journal-news early 1950s_1 copy
Joe Cella as a reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News in the early 1950s.

December 23, 2018

If there is one name that’s come to be closely associated with the Ronald Tammen story, it would be that of Joe Cella. Cella was the reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News who’d written some of the more substantive pieces about Tammen’s disappearance. So obsessed was he about the case that he carried Tammen’s photo around with him in his wallet for decades—a photo that Richard Tammen had given him. If you’ve been following this blog for even a short while, you probably already know that the amount of respect I have for him is pretty much off the charts. He’s my idol. Maybe even a borderline crush.

Joseph Anthony Cella was born on this day in 1920 in Bisaccia, Italy, an ancient town in the southern part of the boot, approximately where the ankle would be if the boot was for real. He and his parents immigrated to the U.S. before he was one year of age and settled in Hamilton, Ohio, which is where he lived for most of his life. Sadly, he didn’t live long by today’s standards, passing away during the summer of 1980 at the age of 59, right after I graduated from college. (If only I’d thought to give him a call to discuss the Tammen case when I was a student at Miami. I’m still kicking myself for that missed opportunity.) Nevertheless, his impact was significant.

My admiration for Cella grew as I studied every line of every article he wrote on Ronald Tammen. As the years rolled by, he didn’t give up on Tammen. He didn’t recycle and rehash the same-old, same-old for anniversary stories that he wrote. And he didn’t settle for what university officials or the Oxford police were telling him. Sure, he’d write down whatever information they were doling out, but he had other sources too. Even 23 years after the fact, he was unearthing new information, much of which investigators had known but had opted to keep from the public.

Thanks to Cella, we learned:

  • That “a psychology book which Ronald was reported to have been reading was found on his desk.” (HJN, 4-22-1954)
  • That the psychology book on Ron’s desk had been opened to “Habits.” (HJN, 4-18-1976)
  • That Ron had stopped in at the office of Garret Boone, M.D., in Hamilton, OH, to have his blood typed on November 19, 1952, five months before Ron disappeared. Cella also revealed that Boone felt that he’d been given the “brush-off” by university officials, who, according to Boone, “didn’t want to discuss the case” when he came forward with his information. (HJN, 4-23-1973)
  • That on Friday, April 17, the weekend of his disappearance, Ron had stopped by the home of Glenn Dennison on Contreras Road at around 8:00 p.m. to pay his car insurance. They talked a little about the Campus Owls, but then he was on his way. (HJN, 4-18-1976)
  • That H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who’d given Ron his permit to have a car on campus, thought he’d seen Ron with a group of young men in a restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on August 5, 1953. (HJN, 4-18-1976)

At least three of those findings, and possibly four, factor prominently in the solution of this case, I believe.

“He was always a skeptic,” said one of his sons. “And the reporter that he was, he was always trying to find the answer to the truth…He was always digging to find the answer. It was one of those things where he didn’t really trust anything completely. He was going to find out for himself definitively what the answer was. He did that with a number of stories, and this one, in particular, which lasted, you know, to the day he died.”

“He’s out there,” he used to say about Tammen.

joe cella hamilton journal-news early 1950s
Joe Cella looking out the window of the Hamilton Journal-News with the clock tower of the Butler County Courthouse in the background.

Like Tammen, Cella had movie-star looks. His wife June, who met Joe when he was an usher at the Paramount Theater in Hamilton, often said that he reminded her of Tyrone Power, the dashing leading man of Zorro fame who happened to be from nearby Cincinnati. After serving in WWII, Cella thought he might give Hollywood a try, but it didn’t pan out for him. He and June returned to Hamilton where they would raise a family and Joe would work the rest of his days in news reporting and communications.

joe cella Paramount Theater
Young Joe as an usher at the Paramount Theater, Hamilton, Ohio.

He probably was feeling let down about this turn of events, but I consider it to be a good thing. Hollywood has enough beautiful people. Joe Cella had a gift for journalism. He had an inquisitive mind and a thirst for truth, which, in my book, the world can always use more of.

According to his obituary, Cella’s first job in journalism was with the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked for five years, before moving on to various stints around Cincinnati. These included TV Guide magazine (regional editor), Crosley Broadcasting Corporation (promotion and publicity director), and Avco Broadcasting and WLW radio and television (public relations director). He was an avid golfer and, in 1962, he worked alongside Bob Hope to help organize an annual celebrity golf tournament at a Cincinnati country club, with proceeds benefiting a local charity. He also opened his own advertising and public relations firm.

joe cella bob hope wlw-tv abt 1963
Cella was with TV station WLWT when he worked on a celebrity golf tournament with Bob Hope.

In 1966, Cella rejoined the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked as a reporter for the next decade, and, as we now know, where he churned out some of his best work on the Tammen case. (I sometimes wondered why I hadn’t seen anything from him on Tammen between 1954 and 1973, and now I know the answer. For much of that time, he was in PR and hanging with the likes of Bob Hope!) Cella received several accolades for the reporting he’d done on other topics during this period. He received two awards from the Associated Press of Ohio—one for his story about Robert Hatton, a young man from Hamilton who could have easily requested a medical deferment from the Vietnam War, but who, instead, fought and died there, and the other for his coverage of the discovery of an unidentified woman’s body in an industrial sludge pit near Hamilton. His third award was from the American Bar Association for his coverage of a mass murder on Easter in 1975 by James Ruppert.

In 1976, Cella assisted with the documentary “The Phantom of Oxford,” produced by WLWD-TV2, in Dayton, which told the story of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance and included on-camera interviews of some of the major players. I’m sure that documentary, for which its producers received regional Emmy Awards, would have never happened without Cella’s zealousness for keeping the case alive, knowledge of every last detail of the story, and well-worn Rolodex.

That same year, Cella stepped down from his job with the Journal-News to run for Butler County commissioner. His platform was to provide “better service to the public” and he proposed to accomplish this through his expertise in communications and public relations. He was a big believer in improving a citizen’s accessibility to the people in charge and having those people in charge engage in a lot less talking and a lot more listening. He won the Democratic primary but, in the main election, he lost to a more seasoned politician named Donald Schirmer, which was devastating for him. I have no idea how Schirmer fared at the job, but I know that Cella would have poured every ounce of himself into it.

Not long afterward, Cella’s health began to decline. He was in and out of the hospital with gastrointestinal issues, which became an ongoing burden for him. Still, he went back to reporting, this time with the Hamilton Sun. On August 13, 1980, while he was covering a Hamilton City Council meeting, Cella slumped over in his chair, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack later that night.

“He died doing what he loved,” his son told me.

Some additional thoughts on Joe Cella in the words of one of his sons:

I guess I wanted to fill in a bit more about my father. I mentioned he was a quiet, gentle person. This is something my girlfriend, now wife, had said she noticed and which in turn, attracted her to me more! He was the opposite of the male Italian head of household stereotype, much different from his father.

He was proud of his Italian heritage and was bilingual. My brothers and I all gravitated to him and his side of the family more because they were a different kind of people from most everyone else in our town. It made us feel kind of special, I guess you’d say.

My father was, as I had said, always interested in finding answers. If something happened, he wanted to know why it happened. He had run for county commissioner back in ’76 and lost pretty badly to an experienced politician. He was in disbelief when the results came in and he kept trying to find out how and why he lost, going over the printouts. I think he took it personally. I had a feeling, though, during the campaigning that he was up against some formidable odds.

I watched him change with the times. He sold off the family station wagon in 1970 and bought two Fiat sport cars, grew his hair longer with sideburns and a moustache (I never cared for it—thought it made him look sinister). His opponent in the election was the clean-cut type. I had been at [Miami University] during some of the upheavals on campus during the Vietnam War and I remember him saying, “This isn’t right,” when comparing it to his experience in the Army Air Corps during WWII. He was against me being drafted  after finding out I had a low number (I wound up getting a 4-F medical deferment my senior year). He became more vocal politically and was influenced by the number of young kids killed in action during that war. As I mentioned, he wrote a story about one soldier who was from Hamilton and his life there. Dad received an AP award for that story.

He was a creative, artistic person, too. I have a few sketches he did of a mockup for an ad for the long gone Surf Club, a  popular jazz spot in Cincinnati where he booked talent. He was big into the jazz scene in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, maybe because he had played trumpet in a band while at Hamilton Catholic High. I recall him taking me, as a preteen, to a hole-in-the-wall jazz bar in Mt. Adams called The Blind Lemon. A trio was playing on the patio that day. I would go back there later on, whenever I could while in town. He turned me on to WNOP, a tiny AM station out of Newport, KY, that was on the air with jazz programming from sun up to dusk. Hardly any kids my age back then were listening to a station like that. His appreciation of that form of music stayed with me.

He was always wanting to be unique, I think, which is why he made several attempts to make a break from Hamilton for the bright lights, big city, but my mother was too tied to her family to move away. I was told once that he did a screen test for Warner Bros. after he came back from the War, having gone to school at Shuster Martin Drama School in Cinci. Through his job in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as publicity and promotion manager at Crosley Broadcasting, he was finally able to be around the movie and TV personalities, a crowd he had always wanted to be in.

joe cella at wlw-t cincinnati abt 1960
Cella at his PR job at WLWT.

His sudden death from a heart attack while covering a meeting in the Hamilton City Council chambers was a shock, of course, but he had been ill for several years and had been showing it. Still, losing him at age 59 was tragic for us all.

Happy birthday, Joe. Thanks to your healthy skepticism and top-notch reporting, we may finally be able to solve this mystery.

joe cella hamilton journal news abt 1954 copy
Cella at the Hamilton Journal-News, circa 1954-ish.

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A big thank you to members of the Cella family for sharing the above photos with me and for telling me stories about your dad. It’s obvious how important he was in your lives.

Happy holidays, everyone.

9 thoughts on “An ode to Joe on his 98th birthday

  1. Thanks for this. I remember the Ruppert case, Easter Sunday no less. I have mentioned to you my thoughts that I believe Joe knew Ron being gay was an important factor in his disappearance. I also believe Joe had the discretion not to go public with that specific point, just leaving it at Ron leaving voluntarily.

    Quite the cryptic teaser about 3 or 4 important clues…I think all 5 tell us something.

    1. Glad you like it! I agree with you that Joe probably knew or at least suspected that Ron may have been gay. One of Cella’s sons told me that he seemed to recall that, though he didn’t know Joe’s source(s), which he was probably protecting. Also, you’re right. All 5 clues are indeed helpful.

  2. Wow.

    What a wonderful tribute to Joe. I had always wondered what had happened to him. I mean, from my own research, I learned he had passed away, but I didn’t know when or how. But I never knew it was just a few years after The Phantom of Oxford aired.

    There have been a few others the last several years trying to dig deep into Ron’s case, but they’ve come and gone, and they haven’t been heard from since. But I knew, there would be another–someone special–who would pick up the torch Joe left behind to relight the flame of Ron’s case, picking up where he left off.

    That was jwenger.

    When I realized the amount of time and research you’ve acquired, I knew you were here to stay. You now have Joe’s torch lit, and I know you will use it to illuminate the truth in Ron’s case.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. Thank you so much! That’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me throughout this project. And you’re absolutely right. I’m not going anywhere until we solve this thing. Happy holidays to you too!

  3. I got Oblivion: The Mystery of West Point Cadet Richard Cox today, and just finished it. Great story, lousy book. The premise of an author writing a book about someone else’s investigation seemed very unpromising, and that is the case. No sense of style, disjointed first person/third person/stream of consciousness narration, dreary prose, telling you how you should connect with Richard Cox and the other characters instead of bringing them alive so that you couldn’t help but connect, a very unsatisfying and completely unconvincing denouement, you don’t know the big witness is an unnamed source!, for crying out loud, until the last moment……all in all, a literary dud. But it’s still a great story. I’ll be generous and give it two stars out of five.

    You have a great story here, Jen, and the obvious capacity to turn a nice phrase. The Grace and Joe Cella blog entries are far better literary efforts, with far more human warmth and soul baring than anything I read in Oblivion. I hope you write a better book than Oblivion. I’m sure you will, but a couple obvious suggestions: Don’t cite every single false lead and explain that it’s false. Don’t get to the end, and reference three unconvincing witnesses as “proof” you’ve solved the mystery, and say “The End!”.

    As for the Richard Cox story, it’s a great story, and there are some intriguing parallels to Ron Tammen, some not quite as obvious as the numerous surface parallels. I can tell by the pacing you’re about to get to that, so I’ll await developments.

    1. Wow! Thank you so much for your kind words re: my writing. It’s interesting: when I first started writing chapters for my book, I did the first/third person switch-up too, thinking that people would be interested in the story as well as my journey, including every step/misstep along the way. Because of my experience writing this blog, however, I’ve been having a change of heart. Third person just flat out makes for better storytelling. Also, I agree that the anonymous source is unsatisfying, though sometimes it can’t be helped. I’m attempting to provide hard evidence for my theory in the Tammen case, which is what’s been taking some time. (Four years and counting, but I’m still optimistic that it’s going to happen…) In future blog posts, I plan to address one or two of the issues that were presented in Oblivion, the most obvious being: was the CIA recruiting gay men in the 1950s? Thanks for these thoughts.

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