Ronald Tammen’s hectic, demanding, difficult, jam-packed, very busy day, part 1

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Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash

I think by now we’re well aware that Ronald Tammen was a busy person. In addition to his status as a full-time student at Miami, he counseled a corridor full of freshman men in Fisher Hall, he was fairly active with his fraternity, and he played the string bass with the Campus Owls, a commitment that could usurp entire weekends, many times in other towns and states. So, yes, busy he was. But on Sunday, April 19, Ron Tammen was busy to the extreme. In fact, over the past several weeks, I’ve been hearing personal stories from his former acquaintances that, if true, rendered Ron Tammen’s schedule nearly as booked-solid as Scarlett O’Hara’s dance card.

First this caveat: the new revelations that I’ll be presenting in the next two posts were told to me by two men: the first a former Campus Owl and the second a former resident of Fisher Hall. Both people are energetic, lucid, and articulate, and both feel confident in their memories. Nevertheless, at least for now, they alone are my sources.

From the Owl: Ron Tammen was recording at King Records in Cincinnati the day he disappeared.

One thing that I always found curious about the timeline that emerged from previous investigations was that no one on campus seemed to have interacted with Ron Tammen on April 19 before 3 p.m., which, according to Dean Carl Knox’s notes, is when someone supposedly first spotted Ron in his room studying psychology. (How the spotter surmised that Tammen was studying psychology at that hour isn’t clear.) That’s now changed. A retired minister, who in his wilder days played the trombone with the Campus Owls, told me that on the day that Ron Tammen disappeared, the band had spent the morning and afternoon at King Records in Cincinnati making three 78 RPM records—one song per side, six recordings in all. They recorded them as part of a contest submission to DownBeat magazine, a legendary publication still in existence that got its start covering big bands and jazz.

The competition was for the title of best college dance band for that year. The songs the Campus Owls chose to record were: Almost Like Being in Love, Squeeze Me, Deep Purple, Darn That Dream, Taking a Chance on Love, and Celestial Blues, a Woody Herman classic featuring an instrument called the celeste, which looks like a piano, but sounds like bells ringing.

“He was there,” the Owl told me. “In fact, after he disappeared, I’ve listened many, many times to the recordings that we made, and there are a few places where I can hear the bass playing, and I’d say, ‘Well, even though he’s not around, I can still hear him playing.’” (Hopefully, the recordings will be accessible from this website at a future date, however, some hurdles need to be jumped before that can happen.)

King Records LOGO
Learn more about the history of King Records at WVXU.

“He was what we called a utility musician,” the Owl said of his past band mate. “In other words, he was not really a soloist, a virtuoso, but he was the kind of person that you could bring in the band because he was reliable, he was steady, he wasn’t a show-off, and he fit in, and he really supported everybody else. We had some prima donnas in the group that really were specialists, but he was just a good, solid utility musician.”

There is one unknown regarding the above story: the time of return. At first, our Owl guesstimated that they arrived back in Oxford at about 5 or 6 p.m., however, that would conflict with Ron’s 3 p.m. study session. In a follow-up email, I asked him if they could have arrived a little earlier based on Dean Knox’s note, and he responded that it was possible.

“All I remember for certain is that we returned to Oxford in the afternoon. I remember that the sky was overcast, so looking back on that day I simply assumed it was late afternoon.”

For corroboration’s sake, it would have been a dream come true to have the recording date printed on the record labels, however, the labels are long gone from wear, tear, and an invasion of mold. Nevertheless, our Owl’s story still rings true, in my view. Not only does it explain why no one on campus had reported seeing Ron until late afternoon, it provides a good reason why Ron would have been talking about the Campus Owls in the dining hall that evening, as Ken McDiffett had told his wife. If he’d been with the Owls all day recording, of course he’d want to talk about their day.

According to the October 2, 1953, issue of the Miami Student, the winner of the DownBeat competition that year was a “West Coast college band,” while Indiana University’s Fred Dale Band took the number 2 spot, and the Campus Owls came in third. What the reporter neglected to mention was that one of the award-winning Owls, the solid utility musician on the bass, was the same person whose whereabouts were unknown to everyone concerned.

Coming next: Part 2, an argument in Fisher Hall’s 3rd-floor bathroom

Footnote: The Owl in this story lives in Houston, which, as you all know, has been deluged by Hurricane Harvey this week. For those who wish to help the city of Houston and other affected communities, here are some options. 

When memories collide, part 2: Song practice, the University of Kentucky, and a meeting over coffee

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Photo credit: Dan Gold on Unsplash

In my last post, Paul (again, not his real name), a fraternity brother of Ronald Tammen’s with an extraordinary gift for remembering, had just told me a story that added roughly two hours to the timeline of Tammen’s known whereabouts before he went missing. Of course, the easiest way to corroborate Paul’s version would have been to track down the third guy who allegedly walked home from song practice with Ron and Paul—Chip Anderson—and ask him what he remembered about the night Tammen disappeared. Unfortunately, Chip passed away more than 20 years ago, in 1993. I reached out to his family in hopes that Chip might have shared his tale with them over the years, however, Chip’s wife has also passed away, and two of his sons don’t recall ever hearing their father talk about Ronald Tammen or a fateful walk home.

I also tried contacting the fraternity—both the Miami chapter and national headquarters—to see if there might be old records documenting a song practice held on April 19, 1953, and, if so, the names of the attendees. It was a long shot that also failed.

I touched base with a couple Delts in Ron’s pledge class with whom I’d spoken at the start of my book project. Neither had any recollection of song practice on the same night as Tammen’s disappearance. I then drew up a longer list of Delts—this time including men who had pledged during the spring of ‘53 plus anyone else who, for whatever reason, wasn’t pictured in Miami’s yearbook until the following year. I called or emailed as many men as I could find to see if anyone remembered having song practice on April 19 and, if so, was Ronald Tammen standing there among them? Again, no one could recall attending song practice that night. One person said that he thought he’d seen Ron at the house that evening, sometime around 7 or 8 p.m., although he was just guessing about the time and he didn’t know the reason why Ron might have been there.

Just as I was about to lose all hope, one of Ron’s fraternity brothers—I’ll call him Bill—let me know that he had a very distinct memory of the topic in question. The reason, he said, was that he was in charge of the Delts’ participation in the Intrafraternity Sing on Mother’s Day weekend that year. He also remembers—vividly—Ron asking to meet with him on the Thursday before Ron disappeared. The reason for the meeting was a scheduling conflict that Ron was experiencing.

“So Ron at the time was the song leader for Delta Tau Delta, and he called me and said, ‘Can we meet? I’ve got everything rearranged.’ And I said ‘OK,’” Bill explained. “So we went to a little restaurant on High Street called Coffee Pete’s, and he and I talked about what was going to happen on the Saturday when they were having the song [competition].”

Bill recalls their conversation like this: Ron had told him that the Campus Owls were scheduled to play at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, that upcoming weekend, and Ron needed to be there. Fortunately, Ron assured him, he’d found a replacement who was willing to serve as the group song leader, a guy named Ted Traeger. Traeger would direct the group on Saturday, which, as Bill recalls, was the day of the Intrafraternity Sing.

“[Ron] went through the whole deal, what Traeger was going to do,” said Bill, “and when that concluded, we shook hands, and I said, ‘Have a good weekend,’ and he said, ‘You too. Everything will be all right,’ and to be honest with you, that was the last I ever saw Ron.”

As intriguing as Bill’s story was, a couple key points—both easy enough to fact check—didn’t fit very well, namely:

  • Miami’s Mother’s Day weekend was held on the second weekend in May in 1953, not the weekend of Ron’s disappearance. The Intrafraternity Sing took place on Saturday, May 9.
  • The Campus Owls weren’t playing in Kentucky the weekend that Ron disappeared. According to news accounts, at least some band members were playing at Short High School, near Richmond, Indiana, that Friday night (though it doesn’t appear that Ron was among them), and they played at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival at Miami on Saturday, which Ron did attend.

I didn’t want to quibble with him about the inconsistencies. People remember what they remember, and (I can’t stress this enough) it was 64 years ago. I made a mental note to work out the dates and places a little later and moved on.

I asked Bill if he attended all of the Delts’ song practices, and he told me no. While he was in charge of their participation in the competition, he sang in a quartet instead of the bigger group. Hence, he wouldn’t have known whether Ron was at song practice that weekend or not.

I then told Bill that news organizations had reported that Ron had been asked to step down as song practice leader because of his many activities. It was my thinking that, if anyone had the authority to ask Ron to step down, it would have been Bill.

“So it wasn’t you who asked him to step down?” I asked him.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

This was in sync with what Paul had remembered as well. In Paul’s view, there was no way that anyone would have asked Ron to step down as song leader. Ron was the only one of the bunch who was musically inclined. I later followed up with Paul and asked him if he remembered Ron being replaced by Ted Traeger after Ron disappeared, and he responded that Traeger “was indeed the replacement song leader.” (Unfortunately Traeger passed away in 2012, so I was unable to ask him directly.) So those two details checked out.

Why, then, would Ron need to seek a replacement? He was still in town for the weekend of April 17-19. But Bill was so sure that the Campus Owls had traveled to the University of Kentucky, I consulted the archives of the university’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to see if they might have a record of it.

As expected, the Campus Owls weren’t mentioned anywhere during April 1953. However, an article appearing in the Friday, May 8, 1953, issue said that the Campus Owls would be entertaining the students the next night—May 9—which also happened to be the date of Miami’s Intrafraternity Sing. (See the upper lefthand corner of the paper.)

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Used with permission of The Kentucky Kernel

And that’s when it all made sense. When Ron asked Bill to meet with him the Thursday before he disappeared, Ron was doing what Ron did best—he was being responsible. The Campus Owls were going to be playing at the University of Kentucky the same day as the Intrafraternity Sing, and he knew about that conflict weeks in advance. He made arrangements to have Ted Traeger take his place and he wanted to let Bill know about the change ahead of time. Sure, Bill may have confused the date over the years, but his recall regarding the reason behind the switch was spot on.

But that left a remaining question: if Ron had been planning to play at the University of Kentucky on May 9, why would he attend song practice on April 19? My guess is that he was just being his responsible self. Perhaps he wanted to show Ted the ropes before he turned him loose. Maybe he thought his presence was still needed to help his vocally challenged fraternity brothers. Regardless of the reason why Ron would have attended song practice that night, I’m leaning in favor of the notion that he was there. I think this even though I was unable to find a single living soul other than Paul who remembered Ron being there. And I have Murray Seeger to thank.

In his 1956 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, the one in which someone had mistakenly (in my view) told Seeger that Ron had been asked to step down as song leader as opposed to voluntarily finding his own replacement, Seeger wrote:

“But this did not seem to upset him unduly—he took a place in the singing group and let someone else direct it.”

Ron “took a place” in the group. If we are to believe what Seeger is saying, we’re left to conclude that Ron had attended at least one song practice after his meeting with Bill. And since Ron had met with Bill the Thursday before he disappeared, there was only one practice that he could have attended—the one that occurred on Sunday, April 19.

What do you think? Was he there or not? And does it even matter?