April 19, 1953

Nothing about Ronald Tammen’s disappearance makes sense. Tammen was one of the more level-headed, responsible guys people would have encountered at Miami. One alumnus has said that, as a student, he thought Tammen was the closest thing to Ivy League that he would ever meet. He was way ahead of his peers in many of the traits that mattered most on the road to success, which is why he was entrusted to serve as a residence hall counselor to a group of freshman men. He was smart, but perhaps more than that, he was savvy, as witnessed by the fact that he was one of the few people permitted to have a car on campus. Even at 19, he knew how to work the system.

When Ronald Tammen was last seen by his fellow residents of Fisher Hall, it was cold with snow flurries, hardly an inviting night for a spur-of-the-moment stroll outside. Here are the essentials, gleaned from news accounts, other documents, including Dean Carl Knox’s notes, and interviews with people who were close to the action:

On the weekend of April 17-19, Ronald Tammen’s roommate, Chuck Findlay, was away visiting his family in Dayton. Tammen, on the other hand, had other things on his plate. On Friday night at about 8 p.m., he stopped at the home of Glenn Dennison to pay his car insurance, a bill of $17.45. Tammen stayed a little while to socialize, and Dennison recalled that they discussed the Campus Owls, the jazz band that Ron played the string bass in, and one of Ron’s favorite topics.

In those days, students often attended classes on Saturday, and, according to Ron’s schedule for the semester, he had an 8 a.m. math class and a 10 a.m. speech class. On Saturday night, Ron played with the Owls at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival, a popular fundraiser for the honor society. In a news article, Ron’s brother Richard, who was a freshman at Miami that year, said he was with Tammen until 11 or 11:30 p.m. Another news article claims Ron participated in a bull session at his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, that night as well.

The next day—Sunday, the 19th—several Tammen sightings were reported. During the window of 3-4 p.m., Tammen was seen studying psychology in his dorm room—225 Fisher—according to Knox’s notes. In addition, he’d eaten in the dining hall sometime that evening and sat at a table with other students as well as Ken McDiffett, the recently hired head resident of nearby Collins Hall who was later promoted to assistant dean of men under Knox. McDiffett, who passed away in 2006, had told his wife Ruth that the conversation had been light, and that Tammen was talking to the others about—what else?—the Campus Owls.

At roughly 5:15 p.m., Tammen is spotted by a dormmate named Richard Brennan, who lived across the hall from Tammen and who said that Tammen seemed to be acting normal.

Two former Fisher Hall residents recall seeing Tammen wearing a towel and heading to the shower that day, though there’s a discrepancy regarding the time. One person thought it was the afternoon; the other said it was evening.

At about 7 p.m., Tammen is in room 212 of Fisher Hall, apparently in “good spirits,” according to Knox’s notes. Room 212 was just down the hall from Tammen’s room and it’s where Richard Titus and his roommates lived. According to Titus, who, sadly, passed away in 2014, Tammen was helping him with his homework while his roommates went out for the evening.

Sometime later, it’s not clear when, Tammen told Titus that he needed to do his own homework, and walked down the hall toward his room.

At around 8 p.m., Tammen is seen again, this time heading downstairs to obtain some fresh sheets for his bed. Someone had put a fish in his bed, a detail that has caused imaginations to run wild over the years. Some people have wondered if the Mafia had left its calling card, warning Tammen that he would soon be sleeping with the fishes. But no, it had been Richard Titus. Titus and Tammen liked to play practical jokes on one another, and Tammen had recently short-sheeted Titus’s bed. To get even, Titus had tucked into Tammen’s sheets a dead fish from a nearby pond.

While Ron was retrieving the fresh sheets, Mrs. Todhunter, the residence hall manager, remarked to him that he looked tired, to which Ron responded that he was and that he planned to go right to bed. According to Knox’s notes, Tammen had indeed made up his bed, because the mattresses had the new sheets on them, “all except putting pillow in pillow case,” he added.

Interestingly, a 1983 anniversary article in the Miami Student, written by Donna Boen, now editor of the Miamian magazine, disclosed a surprising new finding. In the article, McDiffett, who had conducted a great deal of research on the Tammen case, had told Boen that “supposedly Dick [Tammen] talked to Ron at 8 p.m.,” by phone, just before Ron picked up his bed linens. If true, that would mean that Ron and his younger brother had spoken within one hour of Ron’s going missing, which is no minor detail. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t say how McDiffett came upon this information, and, when I followed up with Boen and McDiffett’s wife, neither could recall any additional details.

Although it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact time, it was sometime between 8 and 9 p.m. that Ronald Tammen went off the grid forever.

When Chuck Findlay returned to room 225, it was roughly 10:30 p.m. according Knox’s notes, which are corroborated by an article written one year after Ron’s disappearance by Joe Cella of the Hamilton Journal-News. Findlay found the lights on, a radio playing, and an open psychology book on Ron’s desk. Investigators said that the book was open to a section on “Habits.” Tammen’s car keys were also there, as were his wallet and most of its contents, including his draft card, driver’s license, musicians’ union card, and other forms of identification. Whatever cash it had held—Findlay estimated that it would have been about $10 or $11—was gone. Tammen’s car was in its usual parking spot, and his bass fiddle was in the back seat. He left his high school class ring with his other belongings, but he must have held onto his wristwatch, because it was gone. Other than what he was wearing—a tan sweater, blue pants, and blue and tan checked Mackinaw jacket—all of his clothes remained in the closet.

“Toothbrush and all here,” added Knox.

From the look of things, Ronald Tammen could have returned to his room at any minute. Maybe he had every intention of doing so and something truly awful had occurred. But then again, maybe it was all by design.

26 thoughts on “April 19, 1953

  1. Was the bass an upright wooden bass? Or an electric bass? An upright bass would most probably not be left in the cold by the owner. It would compromise the structure of the instrument. I suppose it is possible this was a university owned instrument, which might make it a little more likely he may have had less attachment or concern for the instrument.

    1. Yes, it was an upright wooden bass, and it was his, not a loaner. I agree with you that it’s weird that he left it in his car in the cold. Perhaps it’s a sign that he didn’t anticipate leaving for good at that point…that he didn’t intend to leave it out all night. But then again, it could also be a sign that he DID know he’d be leaving soon. If he knew he’d be starting a new life imminently, then he wouldn’t care about the bass, or the car for that matter. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask his roommate Chuck Findlay (now deceased) if Ron usually kept his bass in his room, so I don’t know if that was typical or out of the ordinary.

  2. I have long been interested in this case after a coworker of mine (a graduate of Miami many years after the fact) told me the story. Once I saw a picture of Mr Tammen, I was hooked. He was SOO handsome. I would think that a face as good looking as his would have been hard to forget when it comes to the witness who claimed that a man of his stature knocked at her door inquiring about the bus stop.

  3. It may be self-obvious, but a tremendous part of the mystery is what Ron left behind. It is hard, at first, to reconcile any explanation with all the items he left behind. I’ve been thinking about this and can’t get a consistent answer as to why he left the things he did.

    Possible explanations and items that are big objections:

    Abduction-Harmful. Objection: His jacket was gone. That is hard to reconcile with any idea of a violent abduction.

    Abduction-Gentle. eg, the frat prank gone bad hypothesis. Objection: His fraternity pin was left behind on the key ring.

    Voluntary, wanting to start a new life and not be identified there. Objection: His bass viol. Musicians think of their instruments as family or like a pet.

    Amnesia/Disassociative fugue, etc. Objection: Money taken out of his wallet and wallet left behind.

  4. I have to say, that estimate of how much money Ron had has always struck me as TMI also. Think back to your college days and imagine someone asking you how much money your roommate had. Would you even bother to guess? Well, maybe, if you were trying to help and not thinking clearly. I sort of wonder why the question was asked, I guess to see if maybe Ron flashed around cash from his music gigs. But on balance, that is an odd little piece of the mystery.

    In regards to the song practice, you ask if it matters in one blog. Yes, if it happened, that greatly calls into question Chuck Findlay’s story and/or makes an abduction seem more likely.

    Watch what happens if you cast a suspicious eye on Chuck: You say they had a cordial relationship. How do you know? Chuck said so. You say they barely saw one another, despite many people saying he studied all the time, and that in his room. How do you know? Chuck said so. You say he got back at 10:30. How do you know? Chuck said so. Ron was fine all weekend, then Chuck appears and Ron disappears. But Chuck has no clue why. How do you know? Chuck said so. These are all credible claims, but after believing for years Ron was doing well in school, and having that negated, I’m inclined toward a challenging view of all unsubstantiated claims in this case.

    I still get no sense Chuck did or knew anything about it. I think people would have recognized that much hostility preceding an abduction, and Ron would have confided in his brother before his roommate regarding a voluntary disappearance. But based on the blog (I realize you have info not yet released), I can’t agree you’ve eliminated Chuck as a person of interest.

  5. Jwenger wrote: “Whatever cash [Ron’s wallet] had held—Findlay estimated that it would have been about $10 or $11—was gone.” How in the world would Chuck Findlay even pretend to know how much money had been in Ron’s wallet, to within one dollar? Especially if the two hadn’t seen each other all weekend. Just seems a little TMI (too much information) to have about someone you supposedly aren’t close with and haven’t seen for days.

  6. What was the phone situation back then? I’m guessing they didn’t have a phone in each room. If not, was there a community phone in the lobby and messages got run to each room, or what?

  7. Another clarification if possible: Somewhere above you wrote: “Although it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact time, it was sometime between 8 and 9 p.m. that Ronald Tammen went off the grid forever………….When Chuck Findlay returned to room 225, it was roughly 10:30…..” Sorry if I missed it, but do we know that whatever happened to Ron happened before 9pm? Could he have been quietly studying alone in his room until, say, 10:20pm when something unknown happened – just before Findlay returned at 10:30?

    1. So the time of Ron’s disappearance, like everything else it seems, is a little up in the air. The timeframe of 8 to 9 p.m. comes from news accounts, as does Chuck Findlay’s 10:30 p.m. return to the room, which also was recorded in Dean Knox’s notes. But there are discrepancies. Based on news reports and my own interviews, I believe that people back then determined that Ron had disappeared in the 8-9 p.m. timeframe because he always left the door to his room open, and probably the last time anyone saw him either studying or making his bed or whatever was during that period. But, yes, it is possible that Ron could have been in his room with the door closed after 9 p.m.

      However, the time of Ron’s disappearance gets even murkier because at least one of Ron’s fraternity members, I call him by the pseudonym Paul, swears up and down that Ron was at Delta Tau Delta song practice that night and that he had walked back to the dorms with Ron at around 10:30 p.m. Here’s a link to that post: https://ronaldtammen.com/2017/06/16/when-memories-collide-part-1-the-delts-song-practice-and-a-momentous-walk-home/.

      There are a couple related posts following that one that you might be interested in as well. And then there were the reports of Ron being seen driving off in a car that night with a woman from Hamilton. So, I’m sorry to say, it really isn’t clear what time Ron Tammen went off the grid.

      1. Thanks for the detailed response; I was just trying to determine if “went off the grid” meant the time when no one recalls seeing Ron or the time when they believe something actually happened to Ron. As I recall, Ron’s room was at the end of the hall, so even if he was in there with the door was open, there were likely long stretches of time when no one actually saw him.
        And with so much information I had forgotten about the song practice which certainly complicates the timeline. Good work finding the conflict of the Mother’s Day performance and the Kentucky gig on the same day. And just a random thought: perhaps few people remember Ron at song practice that Sunday night because Ron purposely stayed in the background so his replacement Ted Traeger could take the reins and practice before the Big Event on May 9.

  8. Looking over the whole site after the Open Psych Book reveal led me back here. Just a string of thoughts now, some in order, some just random. I am thinking more and more about his bass. It was in his car. Probably he’d played it in Cincinnati that day. By virtue of being an RA, he could have a car on campus. You might ask your Campus Owls contact if Ron drove some/all/himself to Cincinnati that morning. He might have been the only one of them with a car. If so, it gets interesting. When he disappeared, his bass was in his car on a cold day. I’ve tried to google this and gotten answers all over the map about whether someone would leave an instrument in a car in cold weather.
    I think it’s at least safe to say there’s a consensus to not leave an instrument out in the cold if it can be avoided.

    So, when did the bass end up in the car? I can see it being left there when he got back from Cincinnati. If so, he knew it was there before his afternoon antics with the sheets and the study session with another student and his hour(s) long reading of the Psych book, and the singing practice, all of which suggest he hadn’t yet made a decision to leave. I am not exaggerating to say I know musicians who think of their instruments as almost family members. The changing of sheets in particular suggests he hadn’t yet decided to leave. But in this scenario, his bass was in the car, for hours. That’s really hard to reconcile.

    Alternatively, I can see him deciding to leave, and taking his bass and only his bass with him as he drove away. So he puts the bass in the car…..and, what? A change of plan? The woman from Hamilton or someone else was parked by his car, or pulled up as he loaded his bass in? Unless he had a spare set of keys, why in the world would he bother to take his keys back to his room and put them in the desk? And why in the world wouldn’t he at least take his bass with him, his music being at least one thing that kept him happy and seemed a source of great satisfaction even in the midst of what appeared to be a time of his life that was a real struggle? The fact his fraternity pin was on the set of keys in his desk suggests they were not an extra pair. Unless, and I’m trying not to invent a story to fit an a priori narrative, the bass in the car was another little clue he left behind. Or(again, I know I’m jumping hither and yon), his bass was his talisman, and he put it in the car and decided to have one more look at the Psych book before a final decision to leave. As I work through this, the only remotely rational possibility is he left it in the car after after a trip to Cincinnati. And even that seems really difficult to accept.

  9. Todd has something of a point. I know you’re trying to be nice to the law enforcement involved, but overall, they did a terrible job. It makes every single point you can think of a bit questionable, eg,

    Q. Could Chuck Findlay have been involved?
    A. Well, the law enforcement who did such a terrible job never thought so.

    Boy, that’s reassuring. FWIW, I get no sense Chuck was involved, knew the real story, or whatever, I’m just making a point.

    1. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough with my answer. I agree that they did a terrible job. I was just answering the question. I made the point that Chuck and Ron barely knew one another because when a crime is committed by someone close to the victim, like on Dateline or whatever, they tend to have a much more intense relationship — volatile or whatever. These guys had a cordial friendship and barely saw one another. He didn’t do it.

      1. There’s another thing I would like clarification on – the blog says Knox wrote down a vague note: “all except putting pillow in pillow case.” To me that sounds like the pillow case is laying there in the room, just not on the pillow. Did people just interpret that phrase to mean that the pillow case was missing? Or do we know for sure it was missing? There’s a HUGE difference between the pillow case being there and it NOT being there, because a missing pillow case surely hints at foul play. And also, which pillow case? The dirty one or the clean one? If Tammen carried a pile of dirty sheets down to exchange for new ones, I never saw that written anywhere. If not, that means when Tammen returned to his room with the new sheets (and pillow case and mattress pad, according to Todhunter in a newspaper article I read), he now would have had TWO sets of sheets and two pillow cases in his room – clean and dirty. Was one of the pillow cases missing and the other one still there? Any clarification on this would be appreciated from those of you who know way more about this case than I do.

      2. This is a great question. I’ll add the sheets/pillow case issue to the upcoming Q&A post. I won’t be able to provide a definite answer to all of it but we can at least gather up evidence of what we know and what we don’t know.

  10. Disappearances very often involve someone close to the victim. I always wondered if anyone ever confirmed the roommate’s story about the night he returned to the dorm room? Was he ever a “person of interest?”

    1. I don’t believe Chuck Findlay was ever considered a person of interest. To be honest, Chuck and Ron weren’t very close–they didn’t hang out together, and, in fact, they didn’t know one another very well. They were cordial, but that’s about it. But that’s not to say that he wasn’t deeply affected by Tammen’s disappearance. Here’s a link to my blog post on Chuck Findlay and what happened to him after Tammen disappeared: https://ronaldtammen.com/2017/10/08/chuck-findlays-story/.

  11. A couple thoughts, no specific goal in mind per the answers, but maybe fill in a few of the endless blanks in this case:

    Did Chuck Findlay or Dick Tammen or any of the fraternity brothers ever notice if Ron had a spare set of car keys?

    I can’t get past how obsessive musicians can be. The fact Ron left his bass viol strongly hints it wasn’t a totally free will leaving. I know, and you know, musicians who would no sooner leave an instrument behind, anywhere, than they’d leave a child or a pet. Not sure at all what this means, but the thought keeps popping in my head. In the bigger picture, so much of the stuff he left behind is a weak point in many plausible theories of what happened, and the bass viol in particular just jumps out at me.

    1. No one has mentioned a second set of keys, but I can look into that. Re: his bass, I agree. (Another reader recently mentioned that it was odd that he left his bass in the car in such cold weather.) In my view, you can go in a couple ways on this: that he had no intention of leaving and something bad happened to him or that he was planning to start a new life and leave everything behind, even the two things he needed most in order to bring in money—his bass and his car. And you recall how concerned he was about making money, so leaving those two things behind would have been a major, life-changing decision for him.

  12. A real stretch, but in the interest of completeness, have you asked his family if he had any tragic childhood events involving a fish and death? I doubt if dissociative fugue is a possible explanation for the disappearance, but it can’t hurt to ask.

    1. I haven’t asked that question per se, but I have asked them if he had a history of amnesia/dissociative fugue as a child. Their answer was no. I’ll ask them your question the next time we talk, just to double check. Thanks!

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