On Friday, October 26, 1973, a calendar item appeared in the Miami Student announcing a talk to be delivered Halloween night. The speaker, Joe Cella, would be presenting at 8 p.m. in the Heritage Room of Miami’s former student center, now known as the Shriver Center. His presentation had been titled “The Ronald Tammen Disappearance.” There was no need for additional verbiage explaining who Ronald Tammen was or why anyone should care—everyone already knew.
Cella was the Hamilton Journal-News reporter who’d devoted decades to investigating Ron’s disappearance from Miami University in 1953. He’d intended to solve the mystery. He dug and he dug, until, quite probably, he’d made a nuisance of himself on Miami’s campus, at least in the minds of the administrators. If it hadn’t been for Joe Cella, some of the most significant clues of the case would have remained in faded notes and eroding memory banks.
In 1973, Cella had been on a roll. Earlier that year, he’d broken the story about Garret J. Boone, a family physician and Butler County coroner who’d said that Ron had walked into his office in Hamilton on November 19, 1952. (The article erroneously says the office was on Third Street, when it was actually located at 134 North Second Street. You can step inside that very building the next time you’re in or around Hamilton. Doc Boone’s old office is now a bar that features artisanal beer and live music.)
The reason for Ron’s visit was to request that his blood type be tested. Boone said he’d never received such an odd request in his 35 years of practice, and he’d asked Tammen why he needed to have his blood typed. Tammen responded, “I might have to give some blood one of these days.” Doc Boone was able to provide documentation to Cella—a medical record that included Ron’s name, address, and the date of Ron’s visit.
Cella’s fresh lead was published on April 23, 1973, for the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which had likely captured the attention of students serving on Miami University’s Program Board. Someone reached out to Cella to see if he’d be willing to give a talk on campus, and Joe said “sure.” Of course, they picked Halloween for the date of his talk. That’s when students always turned their thoughts to Tammen.
I mean DAYUMMM, you guys. Who among us wouldn’t have paid hundreds to hear that talk? I would have given my eye teeth, my “J” teeth, my “K” teeth, and my “LMNOP” teeth to get a chance to hear Joe Cella riffing verbatim on the Tammen case. The Heritage Room would have been packed to the rafters that night. Joe would have been fielding student questions way past his allotted time. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Something happened in the short time interval between Friday’s printed announcement and the following Tuesday that brought Joe’s talk to a grinding halt. In the next issue of the Miami Student—October 30th—this notice was published:
Joe Cella’s presentation on the “Ronald Tammen Disappearance” which was scheduled for October 31 has been cancelled. Cella, a news staff worker on the Hamilton Journal, has not received clearance from federal authorities to release material which he has acquired concerning the case. Cella has promised to present his material as part of a Program Board event pending receipt of such clearance.
“Hmmm,” thought I, when I first read the blurb.
Let me tell you a little something about practitioners of journalism, especially journalism of the investigative variety: we don’t wait around for permission to reveal something we’ve managed to dig up. We’ll protect our sources till death if need be, and we’ll protect people’s personal information too. Also, journalists who have somehow accessed classified information that could impact our national security have often elected to withhold that information for, you know, national security’s sake. But material on Ron Tammen? That seems like fair game to me.
So who put the kibosh on Cella’s talk? I doubt that it was the students who served on the Program Board. In 1973, Watergate was front-page news and the Vietnam War still had two more years before all U.S. troops had exited Saigon. Students were wary of feds in general—plus, what student wouldn’t want to hear the inside scoop on Tammen?
What about Cella? From what I’ve learned about him over the years, I’m sure there’s no way that he would have accepted a speaking gig and then, at the last minute, said that he needed to get an “all clear” from some federal agency before he could go public with the juicy tidbit he’d managed to get his hands on. Look at it this way: Can you imagine me calling the FBI and saying, “Hey, I’ve obtained a document stating that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act or a court order. OK if I print that on my blog? If you could send me your blessing ASAP, I’d be so grateful.” Yeah, right. If you’ll recall, I posted that discovery within 24 hours of my learning it.
Also, how would Cella have obtained whatever he obtained? It’s difficult to say, since we don’t know what he had, but someone representing a federal agency had probably given it to him. And once that happens, boom. It becomes public information. No additional permission necessary.
That leaves us with Miami University administrators. Did Miami officials cancel Cella’s talk, and if so, why would they give two hoots about what Joe would be presenting that night and whether he’d obtained prior permission from “federal authorities”?
Before I address that question, let’s refer back to Cella’s article from April 23, 1973. Not only did we learn about Doc Boone’s visit from Tammen in November 1952 but we learned something else in that article: that Doc Boone had attempted to tell Miami officials about Tammen’s visit back in 1953 but he’d been summarily rebuffed.
“I offered this information (the medical file card contents) to local authorities at the time, but it was always discounted,” the article quoted him as saying. Also, “I discussed it in the past a number of times with two or three persons associated with Miami University, but they didn’t want to discuss the case.” And this: “I feel I definitely got the brush-off.” And then: “As I said before, I offered the information but they didn’t care to listen or pursue it. So I just put the card away and forgot about it.” And finally: “Maybe this information could have been valuable then. I was upset because I was given the run-around by the school.”
Terms like brush-off and run-around aren’t the sorts of things a university likes to read about itself, and the article had indeed been noticed on Miami’s campus. Affixed to the back of the article in University Archives is a note with the letterhead of the Office of Public Information, which was under the direction of Robert T. Howard. Howard had succeeded Gilson Wright in leading Miami’s News Bureau in 1956, and in 1960, he was promoted to director of the Office of Public Information.
The quasi-mocking note says:
Who’s left for him to scold but thee and me?
Based on the letterhead, I believe the note was written by Robert T. Howard. I’ve tried to determine who Paul is, and I’ll offer up my guess here: I think Robert Howard was writing to Paul Schumacher, the director of Miami University’s Health Service. There weren’t that many Pauls in high posts at Miami in 1973-74, and it seems that it would be on topic for Howard to write to the head of the health service over a fuming physician and his evidence of an off-site doctor’s visit by Tammen.
Several months later, that little flare-up would have still been fresh in the university’s mind, particularly in the mind of the person whose primary responsibility was to show the university in the best possible light, Bob Howard. As Howard was reading the October 26th issue of the Miami Student, sipping his coffee and pondering the fall weekend ahead, he probably had a mini-meltdown when he read who’d be coming to campus on Halloween night. As head of Miami’s Public Information Office, Howard oversaw media relations for the university. Managing Joe Cella would have certainly been within his job description.
Perhaps Howard was still stinging from Cella’s article about Doc Boone and decided that he wouldn’t be welcome on campus. If so, he might have called Joe to find out what he’d be talking about and made up the excuse that he’d need to obtain federal approval first, just to introduce a roadblock. Maybe.
Or could the request for clearance from federal authorities have reflected a degree of familiarity with Tammen’s case? Maybe Howard, who’d been working in communications for the university in various capacities since 1947, knew about the federal government’s involvement in Tammen’s disappearance. If so, he would have also known that the university wouldn’t want to anger the sorts of people who I believe were pulling the strings. Perhaps Howard told Cella to seek clearance to make sure the university didn’t stray from whatever marching orders they might have been given back in 1953. If the feds say it’s OK, then it’s OK with us too, Howard might have told Cella.
I have no idea what materials Joe Cella had in his possession from the federal government concerning Tammen. Cella’s sons weren’t able to shed light on that question and his Tammen file is long gone. Likewise, when I asked them if they could recall the Halloween of 1973 when their father’s university talk had been abruptly canceled, it didn’t ring any bells with them. I also contacted former student representatives of Miami’s 1973-74 Program Board and asked if they could recall the incident. Only one person responded and that person had no recollection of the Tammen program that had been canceled.
In 1977, Cella was interviewed by a reporter for the Dayton Daily News about his search for Tammen. He didn’t mention the government materials he’d had in his possession in 1973. Instead, the article says: “Cella said that federal agencies have refused to cooperate with him or Tammen’s family.” In addition, it said that he’d attempted to obtain Tammen’s records from the Social Security Administration but was refused.
This past week, I was in Oxford again, conducting more Tammen research, and I was standing in Miami’s Athletic Hall of Fame inside Millett Hall. There, among the photos of swimmers, wrestlers, football players, basketball players, and the like was a photo of Robert T. Howard, who’d been inducted in 1989 for his role in directing sports information.
So…who do you think canceled Joe’s Halloween talk in 1973?
As for the year 2021, Happy Halloween to all who celebrate! 🎃