Was Ron being blackmailed?

Our recent discussions about Ron’s finances, loans, and faculty co-signers on those loans reminded me of something this morning: a letter that Ron’s father had written to Ron back in the fall of Ron’s sophomore year. Mr. Tammen wrote the letter on September 19, 1952—a Friday. Although his handwriting is beautifully legible, a remnant of days gone by, I’ve typed it out for you here:

19 Sept. 1952

Dear Ron: —

We have been waiting more or less to hear from you, but realize that you must be extremely busy not only with your studies, but also with your other activities: — such as, counselor and the Owls.

Mom picked up your checks today so we thought we would forward them as quickly as possible so you could get your “Savings Account” started. We are going along with you on this deal as we feel you are old enough and should have the experience of handling your own money. We hope you will be wise and remember that practically all of it will have to be used for next semester.

I am retaining your check stubs for your tax purposes, but will put down exactly what the stub shows:

All in all, it was slightly more than you expected and you were paid for that day.

When you do find time to write, please give us a brief on expenses and expenditures.



Mr. Tammen seemed to have a question concerning the dates of Ron’s bus-washing services. In addition, written in pencil at the bottom in the left-hand column is the following:

When I first read his letter, I was struck by how parental it sounded, but not in a warm way. It felt formal. The sentence that stood out most was the one about Ron being paid for that day, underlined twice. What could have happened at his city job that was so terrible, Mr. Tammen didn’t even want to put it in writing? Did Ron roll a truck? Did he get into a fistfight with another bus washer? The mind reeled. I tried to find out—I really did. I asked Ron’s siblings if they remembered some incident that happened to Ron at work that summer, and no one had any idea. I contacted the City of Maple Heights to see if they still had an employment record for Ron, but they didn’t. I visited the city’s museum where they store boxes of old books and city papers to see if his employment record might have been there. It wasn’t. 

The rest of the letter didn’t interest me that much. It sounded like Ron was just trying to become more independent by handling his own finances, which only seemed fair. Ron was responsible for putting himself through college, just like his two brothers, John and Richard. Mr. Tammen wasn’t contributing a dime to his education. I filed the letter and didn’t think much more about it. 

Until today.

Several things stand out for me in light of what we now know:

First, the “Savings Account” that Mr. Tammen alludes to in the letter wasn’t mentioned by Mr. Shera of the Oxford National Bank when he wrote to Carl Knox about the $87.25 balance he’d mailed to Miami’s bursar. Mr. Shera calls it a “commercial account,” singular, and we already know that Ron was writing checks. I don’t think Ron had a savings account—I think it was just checking. In addition, a “commercial account” is defined as a business account where funds are readily accessible, as with a checking account. According to his brother John, in addition to playing with the Campus Owls, Ron was known to manage gigs on the side. Perhaps this is the reason his account is referred to as commercial? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer.

Second, Mr. Tammen’s last sentence, where he’s requesting a “brief on expenses and expenditures” is telling. He seems like a micromanager and, I’ll say it, a bit of a pain. With Ron taking over his own finances, perhaps he thought he could somehow avoid his father’s scrutinizing every little expenditure. This could be Ron’s way of making sure that Mr. Tammen didn’t know about every single check he wrote.

And that’s when it occurred to me. Perhaps Ron wasn’t seeking to manage his own finances so that he could expedite adulthood. Maybe he wanted to keep some expenses hidden from his father. 

But what expenses? Ron was so busy working, he barely had time to spend his money. Nevertheless, he was always in need of money.

Here’s where my head is right now: blackmail.

Several of you have suggested this possibility and I think you may be right. Think about it: Ron’s freshman year at Miami went fairly well, but his sophomore year was pretty much a bust from the get-go. Even beginning that first semester, he started to drop courses and was no longer considered full-time. He was always working and his grades were slipping.

During the summer of 1952, Ron was working for the City of Maple Heights doing a number of assorted jobs. Could it be that sometime during that summer, Ron and another male were caught in a tryst and the witness decided to make it lucrative? Maybe the blackmailer said that he could be paid on the installment plan.

So how might this have played out: At the beginning of the fall semester, Ron asks his father to let him handle his own finances. That way, his dad wouldn’t know about any checks Ron might have written to his newfound “friend.”

He struggles to make it work, again taking on jobs and securing loans. Perhaps he even volunteered for the Psychology Department’s hypnosis study, both to make some money as well as to see if they could change him somehow, to prevent this situation from happening again.

When Ron went home during spring break, however, something happened. Maybe he saw his blackmailer and the person upped his amount. Whatever happened, when Ron returned to school the following week, people noticed a change in Ron’s behavior. According to Carl Knox’s notes, he was seen reading the Bible 5 or 6 times, and, he “spoke of being ‘tired lately’ since vacation.”

He was in a crisis. Someone may have been threatening to out him if he didn’t pay up, and he was way over his head in debt. Crazy as it sounds, this could have been what brought the CIA to his rescue.

A couple other thoughts:

I’m not sure who penciled in the calculations at the bottom of Mr. Tammen’s letter. It may have been Ron, though, based on another note page, the numbers appear to match those made by Carl Knox. 

It amazes me that Ron had held onto his father’s letter for so long and that the university was able to obtain it. In addition, Carl Knox’s penciled-in notes asking “Did he owe Univ any money?” or telling himself to “Follow up re Check Book” clearly show that the university found Ron’s money issues to be as interesting as we do. 

5 thoughts on “Was Ron being blackmailed?

  1. Wow, “that” day…..the imagination runs wild. Alas, we’ll never know.

    As for blackmail, it sort of fits, although I lean toward no. Can you imagine trying to blackmail a struggling college student with no money? The payoff ain’t worth the risk. A few dollars hardly seems worth the cost of committing a federal crime, making yourself a target for violent reprisal, all the complications. I’m selling. But maybe.

    As for how it fits in the big picture, it would seem if it happened, it would make Ron desperate to find any way out. While if Ron was all in with the CIA and/or MK Ultra, it’d make sense to leave everything behind, it doesn’t seem reasonable to leave everything behind when you’ve been a victim of someone trying to take every extra penny/possession you have. I don’t know. In the big picture, I’m a lot skeptical.

    1. You make good points, though I’ve learned that blackmail was something that gay men had to deal with quite a bit back then. And Ron *was* making pretty good money, what with the Owls and all. I mean, here he was struggling financially while working all those jobs, but I’ve seen no sign that his brother Richard had the same money concerns, you know? And Richard wasn’t working nearly as much as Ron, from what I can tell. Where was the money going? Also, yeah, “THAT” day has bugged me a lot…

  2. Yes, there was no question of the blackmail possibilities. If a person doesn’t appreciate that, look into how the British Intelligence agencies in the 50’s were obsessed with worries about it.

    Not a bad point about Richard. I’ll take that under advisement.

    1. Exactly re: British intelligence. As for Richard, I know he used to caddy in the summers along with Ron for money, and he may have had a scholarship too, like Ron (I’ll do some checking into that), but Ron was far more entrepreneurial.

    2. Hi — A little more about scholarships and also Richard’s finances/overall situation:

      First, we’ve known that Ron had a scholarship through the Cleveland District Golf Association (CDGA) for caddying, and it appears to be for both his freshman and sophomore years. He refers to that scholarship in his Student Personnel Record, which I believe he filled out at the start of his freshman year. Also, the CDGA had requested a copy of Ron’s transcripts at the end of the first semester of his sophomore year (1-14-53). I’ve wondered if that was because they were concerned about his grades and the fact that he was no longer full-time. So that factors into Ron’s finances question as well: he had a scholarship for BOTH years PLUS all of those decent-paying jobs he’d had during the summers/holidays/school year, and he was still taking out loans.

      As for Richard, I have a copy of his transcripts too. Unfortunately, the document I have, which was his application to attend Miami, didn’t ask for scholarship information. His transcripts don’t refer to a scholarship either, so he may not have had one. His grades may not have been high enough for one. His ACE Test score (a psychological test) was in the 59th percentile while Ron’s was in the 83rd percentile, and Ron’s grades (As, Bs, and Cs) were significantly better than Richard’s (mostly Cs, Ds, and Fs, with the occasional A or B).

      Interestingly, Richard dropped out of Miami after the 1953-54 school year. According to his transcripts, he’d been caught cheating in an architecture course during the first semester of that year. His grade was changed to an F and he was placed on probation. Richard joined the Army the following year and then was readmitted to Miami after he returned. The second time around was far more successful for him. But again, how Richard was able to maintain his head above water financially at Miami during the 1952-53 year while Ron was drowning in debt is an interesting question. At this point, all I know is that he, too, caddied for the Hawthorne Valley Country Club with Ron in the summers. Could his savings from that job have been enough to carry him through? I’ll keep looking into this.

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