For Marjorie, the woman who brought Ron Tammen into the world

Marjorie McCann Tammen

July 23rd would be Ron Tammen’s 88th birthday if he’s still living. To commemorate the day, I thought it would be fitting to discuss one of the more complicated and, as it turns out, pivotal figures in Ron’s life—his mother, Marjorie. 

Of all the members of Ronald Tammen’s family, Marjorie Tammen is the one that people have been most reluctant to speak openly about—the one we’ve all been tiptoeing around. Throughout her married life, whenever Marjorie’s name came up in conversation, details would have likely been dodged and euphemisms employed. Only the nonverbals (the head shakes, the tsks) would convey the simple truth. I’m sure some people judged her as unfit. Others, usually women, felt deep sympathy for her. All too soon, her three oldest sons—John, Ronald, and Richard—considered her weak and unworthy of their respect. She embarrassed them.

It had to do with all the drinking. Even when her three oldest boys were small, and well before Ron went missing, Marjorie Tammen had an addiction to alcohol. Her day drinking affected her housekeeping and other wife and mom duties, which in those days had no end. Her dependency seeped into every crevice of her life. It’s what she died of at the age of 52—not of a broken heart, as some would say, but of cirrhosis of the liver. There. I said it. Now you know.  

But addictions of any sort don’t define who we are. We’re a person first; the disease comes in at a distant second. And there’s always a starting point—there’s always a reason.

One of Marjorie’s main strengths lay in her family, where the bonds were tight and the safety net vast. It was Marjorie’s side of the family that supplied the relatives who were most influential to Ron and his siblings as they were growing up—the relatives they would go to for help without a moment’s hesitation, the people they tried to emulate. 

And even though she embarrassed them, Marjorie’s three oldest sons would have been hard pressed to find a fiercer advocate for them. Which parent went running to school every time Richard bullied his way into a fresh world of trouble? Marjorie did. Who took it upon herself to call the Cleveland office of the FBI—the FBI!—to tell them about her son who’d gone missing while he was away at college? Marjorie. Who gave those FBI guys Ron’s fingerprints in 1953 to help with their investigation—the fingerprints she’d saved on a card since 1941? I’m sure it was Marjorie, since she’d mentioned those prints in an interview with a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter in 1960. 

Say what you will about Marjorie, she wasn’t afraid to throw on a coat or pick up a phone in the interest of her kids.

Marjorie was born Marjorie Jane McCann on September 4, 1911, in Sharon, PA, less than 20 miles from Youngstown, OH, near the western edge of the Pennsylvania border. She was the baby of the family. Her brother John was three years older than she was and her sister Mary was one year older. When Mary was a toddler, she came down with polio, a deadly disease that, happily, was eradicated in the United States and throughout most of the world by a vaccine. (Speaking of vaccines, are you fully vaccinated against Covid-19 yet? If not, please do your part pronto. Personally, there’s no way I’d want to face the delta variant unvaccinated. And until there’s a vaccine for the under-12 crowd, I’ll still be masking indoors. Here’s that link again. Thank you for coming to my TED tirade. I’m afraid we don’t have time for questions.) 

Mary’s bout with polio left her with a severe limp that lasted her whole life. Marjorie was her sister’s helper, especially during the hard early years, which cemented the bond between them. When Mary became a career woman with no kids of her own, her “favorite aunt” status was elevated to an art form—practically to the point of being an auxiliary mom. She was a giver—of her time, her money, whatever she had—and what she didn’t have to give, she’d loan to them. The latter included her car if the Tammen family needed to drive beyond where the city bus would take them. Among Ron’s siblings with whom I’ve had the chance to speak, Aunt Mary’s name was the one most frequently mentioned when they described the people who were there for them as children. 

Mary McCann at her teaching job

The McCanns moved from Pennsylvania to Lakewood, Ohio, in 1922, when father Albert was hired to work for an electrical company. Soon, he’d get a job in elevator manufacturing and would learn the ups and downs of that trade. Floranell, Marjorie’s mother, worked in a profession nearer and dearer to my heart: she was a librarian at the Cleveland Public Library as well as the Western Reserve Medical Library.

Albert and Floranell McCann

When it was time to start thinking about college, Marjorie’s brother John chose Miami University, thus setting the whole Miami legacy train into motion. By 1933, John McCann had received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business at Miami. Two years later, he married a fellow Miami grad, Eleanora Handschin, who’d studied psychology there. John’s and Eleanora’s ties to Miami were especially tight, since Eleanora’s father, Charles Hart Handschin, was a renowned German professor at Miami, and he and his wife Helena lived in Oxford. In 1934, Mary graduated from Miami in home economics education, which prepared her for a lifelong career in teaching. Marjorie would attend Miami too, and she would also study home economics, though she wouldn’t graduate. (More on that in a bit.) And of course, three of Marjorie’s five children—Ron, then Richard, and later Marcia—would attend Miami. (When Ron was at Miami, he was known to visit the Handschins, whose home was behind the Delta Tau Delta house.)

John and Eleanora’s engagement photo, circa 1934 or 1935

In June 1929, Marjorie graduated from Lakewood High School. Her yearbook photo shows a cute grinning girl in a flapper haircut beneath which were three adjectives the yearbook staff felt summed her up best: mutable, jocular, and modest. Jocular and modest are great traits for any high schooler, but if Marjorie was mutable in any way, I’d say it was photographically. Whereas Mary usually looked the same way in photos—elegant and beautiful—Marjorie seemed to morph into someone else over the years. Still, she usually smiled. 

Marjorie’s senior picture in high school

Say what you will about Marjorie, she would smile for the camera, even when she was hurting.

Marjorie and Mary McCann — according to writing on the back of the photo, it was taken when they were attending Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio

Speaking of photographs, it probably goes without saying that Ron Tammen, Sr.—the soon-to-be love of Marjorie’s life—was handsome. Whether he was a young man with deep-set eyes in his 20s, or a Ronald Colman clone in his 30s and 40s, or a graying Mr. Chips-type in his 50s and upward, the man never seemed to take a bad picture. Marjorie met him at a dance when she was a freshman at Miami and he was playing in a band that had rolled into town for the night. Let’s just say that it was part kismet and part pyrotechnics that brought the two of them together. The fact that he was wailing away on a sax when she first laid eyes on him didn’t hurt one bit.

Ronald Tammen Sr.’s high school photo

Marjorie was younger than Ron Sr. by four years, which at that stage of life was considerable. She decided not to return to Miami the following year, and in the words of Johnny and June Carter Cash, she and Ron Sr. “got married in a fever” and were indeed “hotter than a pepper sprout” for each other. They were married on January 31, 1931, though not everyone was happy about it.

“Grandfather McCann was very rigorously and religiously Catholic,” John Tammen once told me, and he “wouldn’t let her get married. And so my mother and father had to elope.”

The way John told it, Albert had wanted Marjorie to wait until Mary got married, since Mary was older, but I think there may have been more to the story. In our first interview, Marcia Tammen had recalled that Ron Sr. was raised as a Christian Scientist, which wouldn’t sit well with Albert. Back then, religions didn’t do a lot of commingling. Unless he became Catholic, I can’t imagine that Ron Sr. would have ever been a suitable mate as far as Albert was concerned. Marjorie probably thought it would be hopeless to try to convince her father otherwise. Besides, if Marjorie had abided by Albert’s rule to merrily wait for Mary to marry, Marjorie’s life would’ve been on pause until 1955, when Aunt Mary became Mrs. Edward Spehar.

So they eloped. And by “eloped,” I mean they got married in Mr. Tammen’s home on Ednolia Avenue in Lakewood, officiated by a local Presbyterian minister. Although the marriage license says she was 21, Marjorie was only 19—barely—by four months. It was a premeditated fib. According to Ohio marriage law at that time, Marjorie would have needed parental permission, which she most certainly did not have, if she’d given her true age. 

Say what you will about Marjorie, she had a mind of her own.

Marjorie McCann Tammen

I know what you’re thinking, and relax, everyone. It appears as though they made things right with the state of Ohio sometime after John was born. Also, I guess lying about one’s age on a marriage license was somewhat of a thing in those days. There’s even a Dick Van Dyke episode where Laura Petrie had lied about her age when she married Rob and they had to get married a second time. (You may want to watch the two-part episode sometime. I forgot how funny that show was, but then Carl Reiner was one of the best screenwriters ever.) [Part 1: Laura’s Little LiePart 2: Very Old Shoes, Very Old Rice]

We already know that times were hard during those years. It was the Depression, after all. Most people had it hard. Ron Sr. hadn’t gone to college, so he taught himself the skill of actuarial science, how to calculate risk in the insurance business. He landed himself a job as an insurance adjuster, which helped during the lean years.

But there was another hardship. Back then, people had fewer options available to them for birth control, especially if they’d been raised Catholic. Mr. and Mrs. Tammen’s method may well have been something akin to keeping track of the days of the month and hoping for the best. Turns out, whatever method they were using wasn’t foolproof. Each year of marriage would yield another brand new baby boy. On May 25, 1932, John was born. Five months later, Marjorie was pregnant again with Ron Jr. Six and a half months after giving birth to Ron, she was once again pregnant, this time with Richard. For someone in her early 20s, it was a lot—too much really. John seemed to think that this was the reason that his mother began drinking. There were too many rambunctious boys running around the house. 

“Our mother was really very ill-prepared to handle us,” said John. We just absolutely drove her crazy from the time we were up and walking until our middle teenage years when kids begin to get focused on other things in life… Because we were forever into doing stuff. We were very active. We drove my mother really nuts. We literally drove her to drink.”

Maybe. Or it could have been a thought planted deep in Marjorie’s psyche, as if she’d convinced herself that her prolific baby-making ability was the sole reason that the family was struggling. As if she alone was the problem. At least that was the opinion of one woman who knew both Marjorie and Mr. Tammen well. 

According to the woman, after Marjorie had the three boys, Mr. Tammen basically turned off. He criticized Marjorie for not using protection, she said. The woman recalled another person who’d felt the same way—as if Marjorie’s morale had been broken.

If Marjorie felt responsible for the family’s financial burdens, she must have also felt guilty about her inability to bring home a paycheck. It wasn’t as if she didn’t want to work. In 1930, before she got married, Marjorie had been a librarian, just like her mother. (Marjorie loved to read.) But how could she get a job when she needed to tend to three preschoolers?

Marjorie thought of an alternative. She knew how to sew. In the years that followed, she sewed clothes for all of her children—first for the three boys, then Marcia, and later Robert. She mastered sleeves and collars, pant legs and pockets, pleats and hems, not to mention the accompanying buttonholes and zippers. Marjorie sewed up a storm, and, as a result, her kids always stood out from the others. Marjorie’s kids looked amazing.

Say what you will about Marjorie, if she had no other means to help out, she’d go straight to her wheelhouse.

Things probably improved for John, Ron, and Richard as they got older and were working in various jobs away from home. I have no doubt that they loved their mother. And yet I can also imagine them looking forward to the day when they’d be heading to college and no longer living with her. To be able to invite a friend over on the fly or to walk home from class without a feeling of dread would be motivation enough to move to a school several hours away. 

John’s memory is harsh. In a letter he wrote to Marcia in 2014 discussing the family’s most difficult years, he said: “Because of [Mom’s] bad habits, poor organization of the house, and what we saw and [sic] an almost total lack of caring for us, we all came to usually disregard what she said so that she had no effective control over what we did, where we went, and when we returned; we became almost emancipated at 15, 14, and 13.”

“Almost emancipated,” he said. Almost. Because despite all the sadness that the Tammen brothers had to endure—despite learning to adapt to Marjorie’s varying degrees of normal—they also knew that they could rely on Marjorie’s mother Floranell and sister Mary, both of whom lived nearby. (Albert McCann died in 1944.)

And even though he was farther away, Ron Jr.’s end-all, be-all role model, his influencer uncle, also maintained a strong connection with them. Uncle John McCann is probably one of the main reasons Ron chose to attend Miami. I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog site that Uncle John had sold bonds, which is why Ron felt that he wanted to have a career in bonds too. Uncle John was a business major; Ron was a business major. But John McCann was also a highly decorated colonel in the U.S. Air Force, which probably impressed Ron a great deal. Here are just a few of Uncle John McCann’s impressive military credentials:

  • Col. McCann worked in intelligence with the Army Air Corps during World War II.
  • In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, he was called back to the Air Force Reserves as an executive officer of a troop carrier wing in Greenville, South Carolina. 
  • He later joined  the Air University’s War College at Maxwell Air Force Base (AFB), first as a faculty member, and later as vice commandant. 
  • In the mid 1960s, he was deputy commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson AFB. 
  • Col. McCann is buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Section 60) with his wife Eleanora. 
  • Miami University’s Air Force ROTC has a scholarship in Col. McCann’s name.
Col. John McCann

Weirdly enough, Ron’s Uncle John died on April 20 in 1995, one day after the 42nd anniversary of Ron’s disappearance from Uncle John’s alma mater. His children were great friends to the Tammens, their closest cousins. They’ve remained in touch with one another to this day.

The Tammen and McCann cousins — Second row (l-r): Richard, Ron, and John; First row (l-r): Robert, a McCann cousin, Marcia, another McCann cousin

I think we all know how Ron’s disappearance affected Marjorie. It devastated her, but I’d argue that it didn’t destroy her. She still had Marcia and Robert living at home—ages 10 and 7—and there was no way she could give up then. She also wanted to keep looking for Ron, which she vowed to do, granting interviews about her son when reporters asked and quickly responding to the periodic FBI letters asking whether Ron had been located yet or was he still missing. (Answer: always B.)

Family photos in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Click on photos for more info.

On September 30, 1962, Marcia’s 20th birthday, Marjorie Tammen wrote her daughter a letter. As usual, the resources available to her were limited. No Hallmark Greetings here—just a sheet of stationery with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen letterhead (Mr. Tammen’s workplace), and a blue ink pen. 

Dearest Marcia,

By the time you recieve [sic] this you will be twenty. First and foremost, “Happy Birthday.” 

I am not sure you are aware how older people tend to reflect. Now by “older” I don’t mean those with a foot in the grave.

But September 30th has always held a special meaning for me. That was the day it was our good fortune to be blessed with a girl.

As you have progressed through the years, we have seen you develop so well.

As of Oct. 1th [sic], you will take a step again toward the future. This is the day you leave your teens and enter the twenties. This is not a large step but just approaching the future.

If your next twenty years will see you develop as well as the first twenty, you will be fulfilling all that can be asked of anyone.

So again to you, Marcia, the very happiest of birthdays. With this goes all the love of all of us.

Love, Mama

P.S. This doesn’t mean I won’t fight with you tomorrow. Mama

Here’s what I love about this letter: First, it came from Marjorie’s heart. She had no idea what to give her daughter on this momentous day, so she grabbed a sheet of stationery from a drawer and she wrote. Because feelings are free. 

Second, the letter held so much meaning for Marcia, she saved it until the day she died. Do you have a card stored away from your 20th birthday? Yeah, me neither.

And best of all, 9 ½ years after her golden-boy son had disappeared and about 1 ½ years before she would die, Marjorie Tammen was still able to joke around with her daughter. 

So, say what you will about Marjorie. 

But she was still jocular, still modest, still mutable, and she still had some fight in her, right to the end.

*************************

Many of these photos and stories were part of Marcia Tammen’s genealogy files and were graciously shared with me by Marcia’s forever friend Jule Miller, who was practically a family member herself. Other photos were shared with me by one of Ron’s cousins, and I thank her so much for them. The remaining stories I obtained from interviews and additional research.

17 thoughts on “For Marjorie, the woman who brought Ron Tammen into the world

  1. I’ll be back later with more thoughts, but in the meantime—thank you so much for wearing a mask to help protect kids in the 12 & under club. My husband and I are fully vaccinated, but our kids are both toddlers. Our state has fully reopened; no masks required. We haven’t gotten anywhere close to herd immunity. We really appreciate people like you (few and far between, unfortunately), who will get vaccinated, mask up and give some space .

  2. Thanks for this part of the journey. You have a nice way with words that bodes well for the eventual book. This a great story, regardless of the outcome of the disappearance. Richard Cox was a great story and a lousy book, as that author just didn’t have it.

    As for this entry, I am stunned by the haunted look in Marjorie’s eyes in these photos.

    1. Thank you so much–and thanks for believing in the book. It’s interesting…when I was trying to come up with a topic for Ron’s birthday, I hadn’t intended to “go there” regarding Marjorie’s life. I was thinking of just writing little discrete bios of the various family members that Marcia had written about in her genealogy notes. But when I realized how integral Marjorie’s side of the family was to Ron’s and his siblings’ upbringing, I knew that Marjorie had to be at the center of the story. It kind of took off from there. And yes, I love the photos of her sooooo much, particularly in those early days.

  3. Thanks for sharing this mini-bio of Marjorie with us! Parents (good and bad) are the first major influences in our lives. They shape us from the very beginning. Everyone handles parenthood differently, but it sounds like poor Marjorie must have felt overwhelmed having 3 sons at such a young age. No one knows whether circumstances might have been different for her and her children – IF there had been more support from her husband…IF the financial situation was better…IF…

  4. My dear, dear friend Jennifer.
    What a beautiful and difficult love letter you offered about the Tammens mother.
    This speaks volumes. Marcia in herself, was her mothers bookend. So much you wrote was like walking thru our 31 years together. I was always trying to pump her for information about “herself”.
    My heart and soul are crying. Oh how I was such a nag at times with Marcia. Pulling or inviting her to share her depth, her pain.
    If I were to create a picture it would be that of the Hoover Dam. Incredible structure. Lives lost in its making, a beautiful calm and strength to hold back the power of its calm waters.
    Marcia was not about to break what went into her quiet, beautiful nature. She was an artist of her own right. She spent hours with Aunt Mary sewing.
    Her true gift was making and keeping her family pretty, handsome for pictures, family history and hiding in its secrets.
    I always told her, “We are only as happy and healthy as our secrets.”

    1. Wow wow wow, Jule. Thank you for these beautiful and insightful thoughts. Perhaps part of the reason I waited to tell this part of the story was because of Marcia. Even though she could take anything I told her about my research–she was very strong–I guess I didn’t want to jostle things too much for her. We all have backstories and we all have our own ways of surviving. Thank you again.

  5. I really like this woman. I get her. My alcoholic mother would have gotten her. She’s like a 1950s Phoebe Waller-Bridge in looks. I hope she now has all the answers she never had in life.

  6. I guess I’m not all that sympathetic to people with alcohol problems. As a parent, to choose that is totally unacceptable. People routinely pledge to their spouse when taking wedding vows, but don’t extend the same courtesy to their children.

    Anyone who’s had an alcoholic parent can relate to this Eddie Murphy skit. It’s painful for me, sort of funny until it hurts. The IMPOSSIBILITY of dealing with that parent is dead on. You can tell Eddie is speaking from firsthand experience. Of course, being Eddie Murphy, it’s NSFW language.

    1. I’m away right now so I can’t comment much…I do understand how you feel, though I also don’t think people find themselves in that situation on purpose. I don’t think it’s a chosen path. But you’re right—the kids do suffer so much.

    2. I just watched Eddie Murphy. My gosh. It’s funny until it’s not–“funny until it hurts” is right. Thanks for including the link. I agree that it must have come from first-hand experience. It’s too believable. And even if not everyone grew up with an alcoholic parent, I’m sure that certain elements hit home in some fashion to almost anyone. I know it did for me.

      A question that many people have asked over the years is how Ron could have possibly left on his own without ever contacting his parents again. I’m thinking this is one of the reasons. I also wonder if Marjorie may have suspected that she might have been part of the reason he left, which would have been excruciating for her.

  7. Marjorie as the reason…maybe. And if so, there’d be no incentive for anyone to publicize that. Gay in the 50’s, a woman with a drinking problem…just way “worse” in most eyes back then than today. Maybe a family squabble, Ron’s sexuality is addressed, Marjorie’s drinking comes up, hard feelings all around. Then he disappears. What a nightmare scenario. I don’t know. Lots of speculation on my part.

    1. RE: speculation, welcome to the club. 😉 I just rewatched a portion of The Phantom of Oxford again. In one very telling moment in Part 2, at about the 1:42 mark, Mr. Tammen is talking about Mrs. Tammen and almost slips. He says “She just couldn’t take care of…uh…she couldn’t take it.” Pretty illuminating.

  8. Alcoholics Anonymous got its start right here in Akron, Ohio.
    1935 in fact. A doctor and a businessman helping each other by NOT TAKING the First Drink.
    I certainly can’t count the thousands upon thoughts of men and women, youngsters alike, who have stayed sober one day at a time for years.
    I am that one of thousands. Sober 33 years 6.18.88.
    There has been granted a miracle of sorts for those who cannot comprehend this. It has been proven way back by the AMA that this has a genetic make up proven by science.
    True, it is sad illness that effects everyone around the drinker. Hence, Al-Anon and all the programs that have helped others.
    When Marcia passed away I as a born again believer in Christ, I did what I always do.
    Pray and move forward, take care of myself and continue her legacy. Love for family.
    When we address anyone, anywhere with a crippling illness or situation, may we be a light thru their darkness.
    God bless Marjorie McCann who suffered in silence, grief and absolutely no solution to her demise.
    An alcoholic woman in those days, and even today can hide in their drink and die a horrible death because “don’t tell . . .”

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