I’m heartbroken to share the news of the passing of Marcia Tammen, Ronald’s only sister. Marcia died this morning of complications from a chronic health condition. She would have been 78 on September 30.
Marcia was only ten years old when Ron disappeared, but she carried his memory and the hope of finding him with her all her life.
On the day of her brother’s disappearance, Marcia had won a framed print at her church after memorizing 18 verses of the Bible. The print was of Christ at Heart’s Door, by Warner Sallman. On the back, her teacher had written: “Only one life—‘Twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Marcia kept that print with her for the next 67 years.
Marcia was my go-to source and confidante as I was conducting my research about Ron, and she was always open to whatever information I sent her way. A couple times each year, we’d meet up at Wendy’s or Bob Evans’ near her home, and I’d fill her in on updates. She’d listen intently to what I had to say, taking meticulous notes, and then would usually respond with, “Well…that sounds interesting. Keep up the good work.” She was warm, kind, and unflappable in a Midwestern sort of way.
The last time I saw her was this past February, just before the coronavirus impacted all of our lives. She was interviewed in her apartment by a Cincinnati TV reporter about Ron’s disappearance, and did a beautiful job sharing her thoughts about her family’s loss. The segment never aired because of COVID-19, but I’m so glad that we had the chance to do it. After our interviews, Marcia, her roommate Jule, and I drove to a local diner and had lunch together and gabbed like old friends. On the drive home, Marcia wanted me to look at a building I was driving by and she suddenly raised her arm to point it out. I thought she was telling me to take a quick left, and I jerked the wheel and very nearly rolled the car. Usually, she kept a straight face with me, but this time, she started cracking up, again, like an old friend. That was cool.
Every time someone associated with the Tammen mystery passes away, I feel as if I’ve let that person down. I really wanted to solve this in time. In fact, I’ve always pictured throwing a big party, and getting us all together, hopefully with Ron showing up as the main attraction. This one hurts so much.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As families and friends gather round the Thanksgiving table, maintaining the peace by avoiding whatever elephant happens to be occupying the room in which you’re seated, I’d like to acknowledge a topic I’ve been tiptoeing around since I started this blog. It’s a question that has been raised every so often online, but with little back-up information, other than the fact that Ronald Tammen was a good-looking guy who didn’t date much. That question is: Was Ronald Tammen gay? (For those of you who are wondering why I would choose this topic for today, I guess you could say that I’m thankful that we now live in a time when we can talk openly on this subject without having people get all judgy and weird. So…let’s go there, and please pass the wine.)
But first, I feel the need to out myself, of sorts. I’m the proud sister of a 58-year-old gay man. In fact, at this very moment, he and I are together once again for our annual celebration of turkey and his stupendous “stuffin’ muffins.” (What’s so stupendous about them? He adds artichoke hearts to Stove Top stuffing and bakes them in a muffin tin to create single-sized portions with uniformly crispy tops. You’re welcome, Good Man readers!) So, I know a little bit about this topic from a close-up perspective. More on that in a few.
Another thing you should know: I count myself among the nature (versus nurture) crowd regarding a person’s sexual orientation, which means that I believe that biology plays a major role. Recent studies suggest that epigenetics may be involved, meaning that it’s not just our genes that are responsible—there’s probably no “gay gene” per se—but some other biological X factor—scientists call it an epi-mark—that can be inherited or acquired in utero. An epi-mark won’t alter a developing human’s DNA sequence but may switch a gene or genes on or off in such a way that influences his or her sexual orientation. Also, it’s been shown that a mother’s immune response can influence sexual orientation in some males based on their fraternal birth order. I mean, if animals in the wild engage in same-sex relationships (and they do), why not people? There’s no shame. No blame. It’s all in how a person is wired. Cool? Cool.
And third: To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without people who are L, G, B, T, or Q. My life is richer and more vibrant thanks to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual friends, family, and associates. I’ll just leave it at that.
Now that you have a better sense of where I’m coming from, let’s dive into some of my evidence and musings regarding Ronald Tammen’s sex life.
The girls Ronald Tammen dated
Ronald Tammen was no player, to be sure, but he was known to date girls on occasion. We’re already acquainted with Grace, the friend he took to the Maple Heights High School prom, when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. Having had the privilege to get to know Grace as I have makes me admire Ron even more than I did at the outset of my research. She’s a warm, kind, beautiful, salt-of-the-earth sort of person, and his association with her gives his character added depth and dimension.
After Ron was in college, there were supposedly two other girls whom he was said to have dated on a relatively regular basis. One girl was named Joan and I learned about her through the Miami University Archives. I heard about the other girl from Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective. Unfortunately, I can only refer to her as “the girl from Indiana University.”
Let’s start with Joan, who pronounced her name Joanne—spoken like Woodward, spelled like Crawford. I learned this from her brother when I was trying to track her down in 2010 after reviewing the documents in Miami’s archives. A Western Union telegram from Carl Knox to Joan asks if she’s heard from or seen Ron and to let him know if she has. The telegram, dated April 27, 1953, carries this address:
1624 Vine Street
(At Children’s Hospital, Denver).
In his notes, Carl Knox had written this about Joan: “Last year had a girl friend; left school after one semester (maybe).” (That was true. On the same day that I called Joan’s brother, I called Miami’s Registrar’s Office, and they confirmed that she indeed had dropped out after the fall semester of her freshman year.) Knox then wrote her name and where she was from, misspelling the town of Fairborn, Ohio. He added: “Since last fall she has moved out west. She broke off with Him.” Additional background information includes the name of an older sister as well as their father, who was an engineering inspector. In the 1952 Recensio, Joan is listed as being a member of Sigma Kappa, which was a sorority on Miami’s campus at that time, though it isn’t anymore.
In an April 1956 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, Murray Seeger reported that “Tammen had broken off with his girl friend in the fall, and she went to Denver for nurses’ training. He has never contacted her, Dean Knox said.” That’s a little misleading, since it was the fall of 1951-52, not the fall of 1952-53, in which they’d broken up, and, according to Dean Knox, it was she who’d done the breaking. The last sentence leads me to conclude that Joan had followed up with Dean Knox to tell him that she indeed hadn’t heard from Ron after he went missing.
So, to sum up the little we know: Ron dated Joan in the fall of his freshman year. She broke things off with him (I’ll go with Dean Knox’s version over Murray Seeger’s), for whatever reason, and then moved to Denver to start nursing school at the Children’s Hospital. That seems pretty clear cut, but, as with everything else in this case, there are discrepancies. First, the address of 1624 Vine Street isn’t associated with the Children’s Hospital but a home in Denver that, I would later learn, was owned in 1953 by a woman in her 50s named Lillian Dunn. Also, I learned from a representative of Children’s Hospital Colorado that the nursing program had been discontinued in 1953, “but it did offer a place for students from other schools to train either in a diploma program or an associate degree program.” Another Children’s Hospital source said that they have no student records on Joan. When I asked if their records might be incomplete because too much time had passed, the reference librarian responded, “I do think the school of nursing register is reliable.”
I was never able to connect with Joan, who passed away in 2011. Likewise, attempts at contacting other family members have been unsuccessful. I’d love to know what happened in Denver. I’d also be interested in hearing more about her relationship with Ron and why she broke things off with him. If I ever hear anything on that front, I’ll let you know. But I think it bears repeating that the one girl whom Carl Knox identified as a girlfriend had left Miami more than one year before Ron disappeared. That alone tells us how little he dated.
I know even less about the girl from Indiana University. When Frank Smith first told me about her in 2010, he mentioned that she and Ron had dated during the summer of 1952, and that she supposedly ended the relationship with him. He also said this: “She was supposed to be pregnant, and that was the reason for the blood test here. But that didn’t go anywhere either.”
Smith declined to give me her name in 2010. However, after he retired in 2012, I obtained all of his files from the Tammen case (or so I was told by the Butler County Sheriff’s Department) and discovered that there was no mention of a girl from Indiana there. I emailed him and asked him about his records on her and other potentially missing documents—even going so far as to send him a copy of the entire stack of materials to see if he felt there was anything missing. Unfortunately, he responded that it looked as if everything was there. I wondered if she might have been someone from high school whom he dated during the summer, but, so far, I haven’t been able to turn up anyone among his Maple Heights friends who went to IU.
But the question about the blood test and a possible pregnancy is interesting. I’d wondered the same thing about Joan. Back then, if a girl became pregnant—if she were “in trouble,” so to speak—she might relocate somewhere to ride out a pregnancy until the baby was born and then perhaps put the child up for adoption. Could that have been the real reason Joan moved to Denver?
I really don’t think so. As you’ll recall in the post on Ron’s blood type test, a paternity test wouldn’t have been conducted until a child was at least six months of age. If we count backwards, we find that a prospective child would have to have been conceived immediately after Ron graduated from high school, in the August of 1951, which doesn’t match the timeline for when he was seeing Joan (fall of 1951-52) or the girl from Indiana University (summer of 1952).
The good news is that, if Ronald Tammen did father a child, whether before or after he disappeared, and that person is still walking among us, we may still be able to find him or her if they took one of the DNA tests that are now commercially available. Ron’s sister Marcia has submitted her DNA to the two main commercial entities who conduct genealogical testing, and, although no one has turned up to date, she will be alerted if someone does (if the person agrees to be listed as a match, that is). Also, if the person should wind up in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database because of a crime he or she committed or as an unidentified body, we’ll find him or her that way too, since Marcia’s DNA is on file there as well (after she was tested to see if the dead body in Georgia was Ron). So I think our bases are now covered as much as possible in this department.
There’s one last girl I’m aware of whom Ronald Tammen asked out, though that date never came to be. We’ll discuss her a little later in this post.
Was Ron gay?
Let’s discuss for a moment what it would have been like to be gay in 1953. First, sodomy was illegal in every state, and you risked being imprisoned if you were caught. In addition, these were the days of the Lavender Scare, when the federal government had determined that, for national security purposes, it needed to invade people’s bedrooms and obtain a full accounting of what took place between two consenting adults behind closed doors. In October 1949, the Department of Defense had issued a memorandum stating: “Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Services in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces be made mandatory.” (See Rand Corporation’s Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy,Chapter 1, page 6.) Consequently, servicemen and women who were identified as being gay or lesbian were commonly issued what was known as a “blue discharge,” a humiliating blotch on a person’s record that left them without veterans’ benefits and usually any hope of finding meaningful employment. To be identified was to be outed and to be outed was to be labeled as such for the rest of their lives—not just in the military but by anyone who requested their records, including prospective employers.
On April 27, 1953, what was being practiced in the military was extended to civilian federal workers when President Eisenhower signed an executive order authorizing the federal government to fire anyone who was gay or lesbian. That’s right—the infamous Executive Order 10450 that stripped an estimated 10,000 American citizens of their government jobs for being gay or lesbian was signed a week after Ron disappeared. The take-home message was clear: to be outed in 1953 would have been cataclysmic. It was the single piece of information that could ruin someone forever.
I can imagine how bad it was in the 1950s because, even in the 1960s and ‘70s, when my brother was coming of age, things were really bad. He couldn’t hide his “differentness” very well—he was much too small and sensitive in comparison to other boys his age, and the pain they inflicted on him, both mentally and physically, for that supposed infraction was indelible. Even some of his teachers were brutal. Thankfully, things are infinitely better now, and he has been living an awesome life in New York City with his partner of 23 years.
There’s no direct evidence that I can point to that proves that Ronald Tammen was gay. No love interest, partner, or one-night hook-up has ever come forward, and the male friends whom I’ve interviewed have said that he never hit on them. (Incidentally, whenever I ask Ron’s former friends—male or female—if they ever had the feeling Ron might have been gay, not one has responded derisively. A typical response is “Well, no, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t. We just didn’t think about it back then.” Is it just me, or have octogenarians gotten way cooler than they used to be?) Likewise, no document has surfaced that alleges any “perverted,” “sexually deviant,” “degenerate,” or “immoral” behavior on Ron’s part, the unbelievably offensive language they used back then when referring to people who were gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
A gay man in the 1950s did everything in his power not to leave a trail, and for good reason. Yet subtle behaviors—some calculated, others impromptu—could possibly be interpreted as a sign that a person might be gay. Here are several of the possible signs Ron left, beginning with a few you already know:
Ron didn’t date many girls.
As we’ve already discussed, Ron was no ladies’ man in high school or in college, even though he was, by all accounts, a total catch. Younger brother Robert doesn’t remember Ron ever bringing a girl home. In 1954, Mrs. Tammen was quoted as saying that Ron didn’t have a girlfriend but “simply played the field.” Ron’s older brother John also couldn’t name a girlfriend in Ron’s past, though he didn’t think it was at all strange. Ron didn’t date much, he said, since he needed to put himself through college, and he didn’t want to ruin his academic career over a girl. There would be plenty of time for women later. John told me that he—John—was living proof of what not to do, which was to throw away a scholarship to Princeton because he was head over heels in love with a girl named Joyce. This infuriated Ron.
In the Miami University Archives is a letter written to John that basically reads him the riot act over how foolish he was being to give up so much for love. Though the letter indicates on a couple of its pages that it was “Ron Tammen’s last English paper,” a member of the Tammen family feels strongly that the letter was, in fact, written by mother Marjorie. The date at the top of the letter is also confusing, since Ron was still in high school in April 1951. Regardless of the letter’s origin, it’s pretty clear how vexed Ron and the rest of the family felt about John’s choices. Here’s one telling paragraph, with typos and misspellings corrected:
“Whether you realize it or not, John, or will admit it, you are not the first person who has been separated from someone of whom you are fond. Death has severed associations that have survived for years; army inductions separate engaged couples and even disrupt families with children; and then there are those who love and are not loved in return. No matter how deep the sorrow, each person has a task to perform and he does his best to adapt himself to a separation, bereavement, or temporary parting. The world has never been won or lost by love, but by the individual who has been able to make his compromise with life. I have known people close to me who have had disappointments of magnitude [sic] but who have been able to turn them to an advantage. We mourn for a few days, but when we lose one we care for, we go about our days not forgetting but doing what is expected of us. After all, we have to live with ourselves and it is up to us to try to make a decent job of it.” [Read the original letter here.]
When Ron did date, he wasn’t all roving hands and raging hormones, at least from one girl’s perspective. Grace, Ron’s date to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom, considered Ron to be the ultimate gentleman. Their relationship was vastly more friendly than physical. When I asked her if she and Ron had ever made out in a car, she said they probably had, though it wasn’t memorable. She added:
“In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And, you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”
Ron didn’t sleep in his bed the night before he disappeared.
Thanks to Richard Titus and his dead fish, it appeared that Ron hadn’t slept in his bed on the Saturday night before he disappeared and possibly both Friday and Saturday nights. If he was with another person or persons—a likely prospect—no one had come forward after he’d disappeared. Why not? Wouldn’t he, she, or they have wanted to give the authorities whatever information might help them find Ron? To not do so could mean that whomever Ron was with may have had too much to lose by coming forward, especially if his or her identity would cause an uproar. Whereas a college coed would have raised eyebrows back then, I’m sure the cops would have kept her name out of the papers in return for whatever information she might be able to provide. But if it were a man? That would have been the most scandalous possibility one could imagine.
According to Craig Loftin, an expert on gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s, and a lecturer on American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, “…Going forward to the police with info would not only likely land you in jail, but it would also likely result in a massive police crackdown against whatever fragile gay social networks existed in that area. For gay people in the 1950s, dealing with the police was a nightmare.”
Ron was seen reading the Bible shortly before he disappeared.
After Ron returned from spring break, shortly before he disappeared, he was spotted reading the Bible five or six times. When I asked Chuck Findlay about that passage in Dean Knox’s notes, he was flummoxed. He’d never seen Ron reading a Bible. Didn’t even recall their ever having one in the room.
Ron was known to attend church, but reading the Bible on one’s own time is different—more personal, more devout than what a typical college guy would likely do. The fact that Bible reading was even mentioned in Dean Knox’s notes seems to indicate that this behavior was considered out of the ordinary for Ron.
“I don’t think he was, quote, any kind of reborn Christian or any of that stuff,” John told me when I asked him if he remembered Ron as being religious. “He just didn’t go in for that at all.”
What personal crisis might have driven a young man who normally didn’t read a Bible to consult one five or six times within a short period? It could simply mean that he was tapping into his spiritual side. But it also reminds me of something I used to do as a kid when I was faced with a life dilemma and I wanted a divine answer pronto. I’d close my eyes, crack open a Bible, and drop my index finger onto a random verse, hoping it would apply. (It didn’t.) It seems to me that Ron was trying to find an answer to a question that could only come from a supreme being—a being who could help him address his own personal dilemma. And from what I’ve read, there was no greater personal dilemma than being gay in 1953 America.
There were rumors.
If Ronald Tammen was gay, he was able to fool nearly everyone around him. However, I know of at least a couple people who heard or sensed something about Ron that led them to wonder if he might be gay. Someone’s 1950s version of gaydar had been tripped.
According to Frank Smith, a woman who’d worked in the laundry in Fisher Hall had caught a certain vibe during her interactions with Ron, which she told Smith about decades later.
“She actually called us and said she was a young woman and she was doing the laundry up there and she remembered Tammen very well,” he told me in 2010.
“She said he was always ‘yes, maam, no maam,’ very polite, very good looking. He had everything. And then she laid something on us that was sort of, she said, ‘but I think that he was bisexual.’ And I said ‘what do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘well, just the way that he carried himself at times, his demeanor. I really believe that there were some homosexual tendencies there.’”
Unfortunately, Smith wouldn’t provide the woman’s name to me in 2010 when he was still on the case, and, as with the girl from Indiana University, there were no notes about their conversation in the file I obtained after he retired. Now, after his retirement, he isn’t able to recall her name. Trust me, I’ve tried everything to locate her with no success.
One other person with whom I spoke also mentioned to me that there may have been some buzzing about Ron among the residents of Fisher Hall.
This person lived in Ron’s corridor, and was one of the freshman students that Ron counseled. He didn’t know Ron very well—no one really did, he told me. When I told him about the woman who used to work in the laundry, however, it sparked a memory.
“You know that’s an interesting conversation,” he said. “It seems to me that there was some conversation about that in the dormitory.”
“Oh really? After he disappeared?” I asked.
“No, I think even while he was there. And, you know, most of us would just put it off and say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ You know? But now that you mention it, I think there was a little conversation going around the dormitory.”
I’ve followed up with as many former residents of Fisher Hall as I can locate—on all three floors—and haven’t found anyone else to confirm the rumor. However, Craig Loftin had this to say on the matter: “The fact that someone assumed he was gay at the time is significant.”
Ron used to carry cigarettes with him even though he didn’t smoke.
Ronald Tammen had a curious habit. Even though he didn’t smoke, he used to carry cigarettes around with him all the time. Robert had told me about this during our first sit-down in 2012. When I asked Marcia about it later, she said that she remembered it too and thought Ron mainly did it as a way of making friends.
Of course, smoking was viewed differently back then. It was a sign of budding adulthood, an emblem of sophistication and sociability. But it seems strange to me that a cash-conscious young man such as Tammen would throw away his hard-earned money on something like cigarettes, which he didn’t even smoke. Even though they were only 25 cents a pack in 1950, that translates to roughly $2.50 today—nothing to scoff at if he was buying them frequently. Besides, were Tammen’s friends often in the position of needing to bum a cigarette? Why did Ron consider this a necessary expenditure?
It was when I read a passage from Craig Loftin’s book Masked Voices: Gay Men and Lesbians in Cold War America that I thought I’d landed on the answer. In researching his book, Loftin had pored over letters that had been mailed to the editors of ONE Magazine, the first periodical in the United States to provide an authentic perspective of gay culture in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Gay cruising in densely traveled spaces was highly ritualized and generally imperceptible to nonparticipants,” Loftin wrote. “Men used eye contact, body language, or small talk, such as asking for a cigarette or the time, to connect with each other; one person would then follow the other to a more private place.”
It made a lot more sense to me that Ron might have carried a pack of cigarettes as a way to meet other guys. During an email exchange, I raised the question with Loftin, who offered some additional perspective:
“I would say that a gay man in the 1950s would certainly be more likely to carry cigarettes around for ‘making friends,’ but I’ve heard of this in non-gay contexts as well—so many people smoked back then that having a pack to give others wasn’t completely unusual. But for gay men, the exchange of a cigarette provided a very useful opportunity to gauge potential sexual interest from the other person. Gay men cruising for sex partners in the 1950s had to be very careful. You didn’t want to try to pick up the wrong person (especially an undercover vice cop)…During the cigarette exchange and lighting, there is the matter of voice and vocal inflections (which can signify gayness), eye contact (the key to gay cruising—a sustained friendly stare was usually enough to signify interest), and, most compellingly, physical contact during the actual lighting (think old Bette Davis movies here). Within a few seconds, sexual interest (or disinterest) could be made very clear.”
John Tammen provided an alternative explanation for the cigarettes, however. According to John, their father had encouraged his sons to smoke to help them be successful in society. I’m sure Mr. Tammen changed his outlook in the ensuing decades, but during those early years, he viewed smoking as a way for his sons to climb the social ladder. John was repulsed by smoking and his father used to scold him for it. Maybe Ron reasoned that keeping a pack of cigarettes on hand would prove useful as a workaround on a couple issues. First, the cigarettes would help appease his father even though Ron had no intention of smoking them, and second—and, again, I really don’t know—perhaps they provided a way for him to meet guys in the way that Loftin described. As long as he was doing what was expected of him by his father, who’s to say that his motives had to be the same?
Ron asked a girl who was practically a relative to a dance nine months away.
Speaking of John Tammen, we need to come back to Ron’s feelings about John’s relationship with Joyce, and their decision to get married in July 1952. According to John, Ron was so livid with him when he married Joyce that he cut off all ties with him. He’d be John’s best man, Ron told him. But once the wedding was over, so was their relationship.
“He was very disappointed that I had allowed myself to flunk, literally, flunk out of Princeton, and he did promise to go ahead and be my best man at our wedding,” John explained. “He carried through on his promise, but he also said, ‘Hey, that’s it. We’re through. My hands are washed of everything from now on. I don’t want to talk to either one of you,’ and he was a man of his word. We didn’t talk after that at all.”
John and Joyce were divorced in 1974, but Joyce’s story backs up John’s—the couple hadn’t seen Ron since their wedding day on July 29, 1952. However, Joyce had something new to add.
“There was [to be] a big dance down there on the campus, and he asked my sister to go to this dance,” Joyce told me. “But of course she never went because he disappeared.“
That’s right. Ron had cut off his brother and brand new sister-in-law from all communication but saw fit to ask Joyce’s sister to a dance.
In February 2017, I tracked down Joyce’s sister, who, because of a severe hearing loss, agreed to a phone conversation with her daughter serving as go-between. The woman said that she had known Ron, though not very well, and, indeed, he had asked her to a dance that was scheduled for the spring in which he’d disappeared. They never dated, she said, rarely spoke even.
“Does she remember whenhe asked her to the dance?” I asked her daughter. “How far in advance did he ask her?”
“During the summer,” her daughter reported back. I’d heard her mother say this loud and clear in the background as well. Whereas other details were a little iffy after so many years, on that fine point she was sure. He asked her during the summer of 1952.
Why would Ron ask the younger sister of an extended family member with whom he was supposedly incommunicado? And why so far in advance? Not only were they not dating, they were barely even friends, and he was doing nothing to upgrade their status in the interim. The dance Ron had on his mind for all those months was likely the Interfraternity Ball. Attended by members of all of the fraternities on campus and their guests, the ball was the culmination of Greek Week, and, for the second year in a row, featured Count Basie and his orchestra. As fate would have it, the dance was held the Saturday after Ron disappeared.
Based on his looks alone, Ron probably could have taken anyone he wanted to the dance. In fact, I’ve spoken with several acquaintances who would have gladly accompanied him. In my mind, to go to a dance with his brother’s sister-in-law would likely have seemed safe to Ron—almost like going with a cousin.
Connecting a few dots
Again, I have no direct proof whether or not Ronald Tammen was gay. However, if he were gay, it would help explain a few details that have been left dangling for a while on this blog site. First, the fact that Ronald Tammen disappeared at all is a clue to the mystery. In an article on the Richard Cox disappearance that appeared in the April 14, 1952, issue of LIFE magazine, authors Herbert Brean and Luther Conant discussed the relatively few reasons that a typical adult might have for running away at that time. Men mainly leave for “business difficulties or domestic problems (money or sex),” they said, while the reason for a woman leaving is “usually an emotional problem involving husband or lover.” (Yeah, we women can do some nutty things on account of our womanly emotions and all.) More significantly, they also wrote that “homosexuality underlies far more vanishments than is suspected by a loving wife or husband.” There are no statistics available regarding how many gay people ran away from their lives back in the 1950s, however, it’s generally presumed that many did, often moving to large, more culturally diverse cities, where they could get lost in the crowd.
If Ron were gay, that also might have been a reason for him to seek help from the hypnosis experts in Miami’s psychology department. In those days, hypnosis was sometimes sought out as a possible treatment for homosexuality, a term that was defined broadly as a mental disorder and, more narrowly, as a sociopathic personality disturbance in the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-I) of the American Psychiatric Association. Perhaps Ron wanted to “fix” this so-called disorder which he otherwise had no control over.
In addition, although he was carrying a “B” average, Tammen’s transcripts reveal that he had been dropping his required courses to such a degree that he was no longer carrying a full load. This likely put him in jeopardy of losing his deferment from military service. If Ron happened to be gay, being drafted would have created a full-blown crisis for him. As mentioned earlier, the military was weeding out gay men and lesbians at an unparalleled rate, and their methods for identifying individuals whom they suspected were both systematic and sneaky. If Ron were gay and outed by the military, his long-held dream of finding his place in society would have been destroyed. There wasno place in American society at that time for someone who was gay.
Finally, the possibility that Ron was gay also helps answer the perplexing question of why he might have voluntarily left his family forever, without ever contacting them. If Ron were gay, he might have thought he was doing the people he loved most a favor. Perhaps he reasoned that they’d be better off thinking him dead than as a gay man in 1950s America.
I realize there’s a lot to ponder here. I also realize that not everyone is going to agree with my point of view, in whole or in part. Due to the sensitivity of this topic, let’s discuss it on another day, after I’ve established a few guidelines for comments. In the meantime, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone! I’m thankful to have you as part of the Good Man community.
If you’d like to read more on the topic of what it was like to be gay during the Cold War years, here are several resources that I highly recommend:
Chuck Findlay at his parents’ home in Dayton, Ohio. (Approx. 1953) Credit: Used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.
Chuck Findlay teaching roller skating in Wooster, Ohio. (Approx. 1956) Credit: Used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.
Charles Findlay, later in life, on Christmas morning. Credit: Used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.
There are moments in some people’s lives that prove to be pivotal. They’re rolling along, minding their own business, steady as they go on a plotted trajectory, and then a metaphorical meteor strikes and their life takes an abrupt left turn. In Charles Findlay’s case, that moment arrived on Sunday, April 19, 1953, at around 10:30 p.m., when he walked into his room in Miami University’s Fisher Hall after having spent the weekend in Dayton with his family.
At first glance, Chuck didn’t know that everything was about to change for him. By all appearances, his roommate, Ron Tammen, would be walking in at any minute and they’d be recounting to one another how they’d spent their weekends. Ron had left a light on, an open book on his desk, and his wallet, keys, and pretty much everything else he owned in the room, and his car was still parked outside. When, after some time, there was still no Ron, Chuck decided he was probably staying at the fraternity house that night and went to bed. He didn’t think much else about it.
The next day, when Ron still hadn’t shown up, Chuck grew a little more concerned. According to one knowledgeable source, Chuck had bumped into Richard, Ron’s younger brother and a freshman at Miami, while walking to class. He told him that Ron hadn’t come home the night before and asked if he knew where he might be. Richard responded that he didn’t know. Later that day, Chuck stopped by the Delt house and asked if Ron had been there the night before. Whoever he spoke with also told him no. We already know how the story ends—Ron never returned and, from that point on, Charles L. Findlay would be remembered as the roommate of the guy in the center of Miami’s most baffling mystery.
The first time I spoke with Chuck was in 2010. I was practically giddy at the prospect of talking with someone whom I’d hoped could finally answer all my questions about Ron Tammen. But, like everyone else, Chuck didn’t feel that he knew Ron very well. They might have been roommates, but they didn’t see each other much. “He was busy,” Chuck told me.
Chuck and I spoke several more times, the last being in the spring of 2015. My notes and transcripts reveal a pattern in which I was doing most of the talking, posing to him a string of questions or filling him in on the latest developments. “Do you remember anything about this (or that) detail?” I’d ask him. And he’d say, “Somewhat,” or “Maybe,” or, his favorite response, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t. It was so long ago.” To his credit, he didn’t want to send me on a wild goose chase based on a potentially faulty recollection. Nevertheless, by that time, I’d come to appreciate what a kind and gentle man Chuck Findlay was—always willing to return my call, always happy to listen to my latest hypothesis about what happened to his former roommate.
I left a voicemail message suggesting I come to visit him in person. Several days later, I received a call from Chuck’s son David. Knowing that couldn’t be a good sign, I braced myself for the sad news: Chuck Findlay had passed away May 26, 2017, at the age of 85. David also let me know that, in Chuck’s later years, the two had talked at length about Ron Tammen. “Would you be interested in meeting with me instead?” he asked. “Absolutely,” I replied.
We met in a Panera, in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and it was there that I more fully began to grasp the toll that Ron Tammen’s disappearance had taken on Chuck Findlay and how it impacted the life he led.
“Ronald Tammen’s disappearance is partly responsible for the person that’s sitting in front of you today,” David Findlay said to me mere minutes into our conversation. David is warm and energetic and he’s a big believer in the interconnectedness of the universe. Plus, he looked so much like his father, it wasn’t funny. We hit it off instantly.
Chuck Findlay was a little older than Ron Tammen. Born on April 1, 1932, he had just turned 21 when Tammen went missing. (Ron was still 19.) Although they didn’t know each other well, they were a good match, because they were similar people: quiet, introspective, and studious.
“The two of them liked each other, got along famously, but they weren’t close,” David said. “They weren’t close. They were roommates and they got along fine.”
After Ron disappeared, Chuck was left to fend for himself for the remainder of the school year—he was never provided with a replacement roommate, which, as David points out, couldn’t have been good psychologically. During Chuck’s junior year, he was once again assigned to Fisher Hall, and this time, his roommate was kicked out during the first semester for stealing tests. Again, Chuck was provided with no replacement. On top of all that, he became ill with mono during the latter part of 1953. He was struggling.
According to David, Chuck internalized Ron’s disappearance in the years that followed. He may have been silently marking off the anniversaries, but he would never raise the subject with anyone.
”He did not talk about it. I mean, it had that much of an effect on him,” David said.
A 1960 anniversary article in the Dayton Daily News, which included comments from Chuck’s mother, supported this observation. Although Mrs. Findlay claimed that Chuck and Ron had been “very, very close,” a point both David and his father would have disputed, she also mentioned that Chuck had been seeing a doctor for a nervous disorder he’d developed after Ron disappeared.
“He still can’t talk about it,” she’d said at the time.
During the summers when Chuck was still at Miami, he’d worked in sales for a hardware store and, later, a furniture store, both in his hometown of Dayton. However, when he graduated in the winter of 1956, he needed a break. He moved to Wooster, a small college town in northeast Ohio, and taught roller skating at the local skating rink. In the 1950s, this might have been comparable to a college grad today moving to Colorado to wait tables or teach downhill skiing. It was a chance for Chuck to get away and clear his head before diving into the lifelong responsibilities of adulthood.
“He and my uncle ran the teaching program through Wooster Skateland for several years, but that wouldn’t have happened if Ron Tammen hadn’t disappeared,” said David. “And that’s where he met my mom. So there’s this cause and effect thing—this ripple, cause, and effect thing.”
After Chuck and his wife married, the two moved to Dayton, where he managed a furniture store, and later, to Michigan, where they ran a roller rink of their own for 25 years. After leaving the skating world, he worked for a local car dealership, driving cars from state to state until Parkinson’s disease made it impossible for him to drive any longer. When he was 82, he finally decided to retire for good, though the owners told him that he was welcome to work for them for as long as he wanted. He was that loved.
Chuck was a sentimental dad, and he wasn’t ashamed to show it. He was the sort of father who said a prayer and kissed his sons on the forehead at night, whether they were grown adults or not. When the family was younger, he would help his wife hang cookies on the tree on Christmas Eve so the boys could munch on them the whole next day. He would tape record family gatherings so he could capture each word that was said for posterity.
In 1976, when a Dayton television station was producing The Phantom of Oxford, they called Chuck repeatedly, begging him to talk on camera with them. After two months, he finally agreed.
“They had to bring in big cameras and lighting and everything, and I sat in my pajamas, cross-legged, at the entrance to our living room, and sat there and listened to the story,” said David. “And that’s the first time I ever heard it. It gives me chills to this day. And then, the book closed and he didn’t speak of it for decades.”
That would change some 38 years later as David was helping his father become more accustomed to life in the digital world.
“About three years ago, I discovered that video online. Dad was asking me, ‘What’s the difference between Netflix and YouTube?’ And I was explaining the difference, and I said, ‘Everything and everyone is on YouTube.’ So I Googled him on YouTube, and that came up, and we have a Smart TV, and I said, ‘Dad, you want to know what’s on YouTube? Here.’ And I started playing his interview, and he was like, ‘That’s me!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re on YouTube.’”
After watching the video, Chuck started opening up more about his time at Miami: about Fisher Hall’s wobbly plywood floors that made funny sounds when they walked; or the dropped ceilings that would rattle with falling plaster; or how food would be transported by dumbwaiter from the kitchen in the basement to the dining area above; or how he used to carry a bow tie in his pocket so that he’d be able to clip it on for dinner (an occasion for which ties were required) without having to run to his room to change—his own little 1950s life hack.
Chuck also took to keeping a notebook during those years at Miami after Ron disappeared—daily affirmations to help him cope. They were simple sayings, many clichés. Things like: Don’t sweat the small stuff, or The past can only be used to reflect on. It should not be used as a guideline for the future.
David treasures that notebook as an opportunity to see into the psyche of his father after he’d withstood one of the biggest jolts imaginable—perhaps even bigger than death itself. In death, there’s grieving. There’s closure. In a disappearance, there’s a hole, and endless unanswered questions, and the off chance that you might run into that person 30 or 40 years later. Chuck never stopped looking for Ron in crowds or on the street.
“He was 21. And so much of [what’s in the notebook] is who I knew to be my father my whole lifetime. And I think that was the start of it,” said David. “So it was really amazing that this tragedy, for my father, in the end, gave him a deep love for life and a passion for living life to the fullest that may not have been if not for that fateful night so very long ago.”
David and Charles Findlay, August 2015. David is wearing his grandfather’s cap, while Chuck is wearing a cap he purchased in 1953 in Oxford, Ohio. Credit: Photo used with permission of Findlay family. Not for reproduction.
In the last post, we discussed how busy Ronald Tammen was on his final official day on the grid. Our big revelation was that, in the morning and early afternoon of April 19, 1953, Ron was allegedly in Cincinnati making three 78 records—six recordings in all—with the Campus Owls for their competition entry for DownBeat magazine.
So King Records now takes the #1 spot in Ron’s itinerary for that day. Before I make the next reveal, here’s a brief synopsis of what we know (or think we know) about his actions from that point on:
With this timeline in mind, we now have one more impromptu brush with Ronald Tammen that supposedly happened on April 19. This information comes to us by way of a former resident of Fisher Hall—let’s call him Hal—who lived on the third floor. Although I haven’t yet been able to corroborate his story with anyone else, I wanted to share it because it’s so compelling and because Hal is so confident that it happened. (Several of Ronald Tammen’s family members have reviewed this post in advance, and I’ve included a couple observations from one of them below, where applicable.)
From the Fisher Hall resident: Ron was in Fisher Hall’s third-floor bathroom when he got into a fight with his younger brother Richard.
To say that Hal is an extrovert is an understatement. Hal was known as the guy who had his finger on the pulse of Fisher Hall. He pretty much knew everyone in the dorm, in addition to what the day-to-day goings-on were as well as what was churning in the rumor mill. Today, he’s a retired businessman who has enjoyed great success in the construction field, but back in 1953, he was the ringleader of a group of guys who would play hearts from early evening until well into the night. When they weren’t playing cards, they occasionally broke rules and ignored boundaries, but only in a harmless sort of way. If they got hungry, they’d been known to try to sneak food from the kitchen. If they wondered where an unmarked door might lead, they’d open it and go exploring.
Hal explained to me that on the evening that Ronald Tammen disappeared, he and some of the guys had been playing cards in one of the rooms on the third floor. And then, ever so nonchalantly, he dropped this little bombshell:
“Now the two Tammen brothers fought in the bathroom. And both of them were husky guys, not big, but quite husky…and that night they had a real bang-up in the third-floor bathroom.”
Upon reflection, Hal isn’t exactly sure what time the fight happened and he has no idea why it happened. He wasn’t there. He’d only heard about the fight after the fact. He also isn’t sure if there had been yelling or fists flying—just that the Tammens were in a fight, and someone broke it up. It wasn’t the first time that Ron and Richard had fought, he said, though it wasn’t out of the ordinary for fights to break out in the dorm either, usually between roommates. He just recalls hearing that Ron and Richard Tammen had fought in the third-floor bathroom sometime on the day Ron disappeared. (A Tammen family member questions the description of the brothers as husky, noting that they were slim to medium in build.)
Why Ron and Richard would be on the third floor of Fisher Hall at all is anyone’s guess, since Ron’s room was on the second floor and Richard, who was a freshman that year, lived in nearby Symmes Hall. When I asked Hal that question, he said that Ron often took showers on the third floor. (To find out why Ron did that, I suppose we’d have to ask him directly. Maybe it was so he could have some privacy and a little distance from the freshman guys he oversaw. Maybe the water pressure was better. Alas, we’ll never know.)
Hal’s hypothesis is that something terrible must have happened in relation to that fight. He imagines a scenario in which a second fight broke out, things got out of hand, and Ron died somehow—by accident. He pictures Richard carrying Ron’s body up a ladder to the attic and putting him in one of the large cisterns that Hal had discovered during one of his clandestine expeditions around Fisher Hall. Hal says that he spoke with the Oxford police about it, encouraging them to search the attic, but they had little regard for what he had to say and, at least to his knowledge, no one followed up. (The same Tammen family member finds it difficult to believe that Richard would have been able to carry Ron up a ladder to the attic, since Richard was smaller than Ron. Although they were both roughly 5’9″ in height, Richard was probably no more than 150 pounds in comparison to Ron’s 175 pounds at the time of his disappearance.)
Click on image to enlarge. A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes showing Ronald Tammen’s height and weight at the time of his disappearance.
Hal also recalls Chuck Findlay, Ron’s roommate, interrupting their card game the night of Ron’s disappearance and asking the group if anyone had seen Ron. Hal says that he and several others took it upon themselves to check the rooms of everyone in Fisher Hall, to no avail. They also supposedly checked the entrances to the dorm to see if there were any tracks in the snow. It was the absence of footprints that signaled to Hal that Ron had never left the dorm. (Although Hal’s sleuthing instincts were excellent, I’m not sure they were infallible considering the amount of snow that had reportedly fallen that day. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the snowfall appears to have been between .01 and .04 inches per hour for most of the afternoon and early evening for Dayton and Cincinnati, and continued at that level in the early afternoon of April 20. This would be consistent with news accounts that described the weather as chilly with snow flurries. In short, the snow may have been sticking, but it probably hadn’t accumulated very much.)
Click on image to enlarge. Hourly precipitation (HPCP) for April 19-20, 1953, in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, region. Source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center.
Hal isn’t the first person to suspect Richard. In contrast to his likable older brother, Richard could be a hothead and a bully. John, the oldest Tammen brother, credited Richard’s teachers with bringing out the mean in him by continuously smacking his dominant left hand in school. Some have wondered if Richard might have done something terrible to Ron in true biblical, Cain v. Abel fashion.
I think we should take a few steps back, however. We don’t know what the argument was about. But we might be able to piece a few things together, assuming, again, that it indeed happened:
By taking place in Fisher Hall’s third-floor bathroom, it’s pretty clear who the aggressor would have been. Something could have set Richard off, and he came to find his brother to have it out with him.
According to Ken McDiffett, the former head resident of nearby Collins Hall who had conducted his own research into the Tammen disappearance, Ronald and Richard supposedly spoke by phone at 8 p.m. That phone call probably had something to do with whatever they were arguing about, irrespective of whether the call took place before or after the fight.
If the fight took place after the 8 p.m. phone call, then Hal and his guys would have likely heard the commotion while they were playing cards, since the two bathrooms, which were located across the hall from one another, were nearby.
If Ron was in the third-floor bathroom to take a shower, he probably did so at the same time he was seen walking around in a towel. That would put the fight sometime within our 4-7 p.m. window, which is my guess regarding when the fight occurred.
As Hal said, the argument in the bathroom didn’t last. Someone broke things up. What’s more, according to Paul, the Delt, Ron attended song practice at around 9 p.m., which means that there would have been a cooling-off period. If the fight had resumed, it would have had to occur sometime after 10:30 p.m., when Ron returned from song practice. And if so, the altercation likely wouldn’t have taken place inside Fisher Hall, since more people would have heard it at that hour. Even if Ron didn’t attend song practice, any possible rematch sometime after 8 p.m. would have had to occur outside, again, because too many people would have noticed it inside Fisher Hall. This makes the cistern theory less plausible.
Richard’s behavior after his brother disappeared was all over the map—from reticence to defensiveness to panic. Robert Tammen, the youngest of the Tammen siblings, doesn’t remember Richard ever talking about Ron’s disappearance when he was home on break. A former dorm counselor said that, when he asked Richard if he knew where Ron might be, Richard’s demeanor turned sour, and he said something like, “I’m not my brother’s keeper.” Paul, the Delt, remembers Richard bursting into the fraternity house living room the Saturday after Ron went missing, when a group was watching a baseball game, and asking if anyone had seen his brother. Of course, if Richard had spoken with his brother the day of his disappearance, either by phone or in person, he remained tight-lipped about it when speaking with news reporters. (He’s on record as having last seen Ron at around 11 or 11:30 p.m., Saturday, April 18.) Any of those behaviors could be interpreted in a number of ways, some of which might arouse suspicions about Richard.
Two of Richard’s actions have led me to see things differently, however. First, news accounts had reported that Richard didn’t believe Mrs. Spivey’s claims that Ron had showed up on her doorstep in Seven Mile later that night because Richard had found some discrepancies in her story. If he had put his brother in the attic, or anywhere else, wouldn’t it have been to his advantage to go along with whatever Mrs. Spivey said, to throw people off the trail? Also, many years afterward, when the university had been publishing articles around Halloween that portrayed the Tammen case as a ghost story, Richard contacted Miami’s news bureau to ask them to stop. He didn’t want his brother remembered in that way. Those don’t sound like the actions of a guilty person to me.
I would give anything to talk with Richard, because, in my mind, what took place in that third-floor bathroom might not have begun as a fight at all. Perhaps Richard was pleading—loudly, aggressively—with Ron not to do something that Ron was determined to do, even to the point of throwing some punches at him. Angst and anger can look the same to a casual observer. Unfortunately, in October 2004, Richard died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an apartment fire that was ruled accidental, with the probable cause being “the careless use of smoking materials.”
Did Richard do something drastic? I don’t think so—even though I know he was no angel. I’m not the only person who has come to that conclusion either. The FBI has no records on Richard, and people familiar with the inner workings of the Oxford PD and university investigations have told me that they never heard his name mentioned as a suspect. The cold case detective from the 2008 Butler County Sheriff’s Department investigation also didn’t consider him a suspect.
Did Richard know something about Ron’s whereabouts that he would take to his grave? That’s a possibility I haven’t ruled out.
Ronald Tammen was born on July 23, 1933, which means that, if he’s still alive, he’d be 84 today. In celebration, I thought we’d steer clear of our usual topics of why and how he disappeared, and share a few stories that his friends and family members have told me—stories that, if Ron were still here, seated at a table with his cake aglow, would elicit that winning grin of his. Many articles have been written about Ronald Tammen over the years, yet very little information has been revealed concerning who Ron was as a human being. I hope the following stories, as told by the people who were fortunate enough to know him personally, will help.
P.S. These tapes were originally created for my own use, and not with the intent of playing them for the public. As a result, I apologize for my less-than-stellar interview style accompanied by the occasional clattering dishes, background voices, country-western tunes, wind gusts, etc. Needless to say, broadcast journalism was never my calling.
For accessibility purposes, a transcript is provided below each audio clip.
Ron Tammen’s prom date
Ronald Tammen’s date to the senior prom, a woman by the name of Grace, describes the qualities she liked best in Ron. (1:00)
Ronald Tammen was a sophomore business major from near Cleveland who disappeared from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, one snowy Sunday evening in April 1953. As the story goes, he was last seen near his room in Fisher Hall before he went missing. His roommate, who had been away for the weekend, returned later that evening to find the lights on, the radio playing, and a textbook open on Tammen’s desk. He’d left all of his possessions behind, including his wallet, his car, and the string bass he played in the campus dance band. For the past seven years, I’ve been investigating Tammen’s disappearance in an effort to shed new light on — and possibly even solve — the mystery of what happened to him. The following is one detour I took in the process.
The instant I saw the photos, I knew that I was in for a long slog with a new addiction. I’d already been searching for the boy—Ronald Tammen—for several years by that time, but now I would need to find the girl too. The two scenes, freeze-framed in black and white, had managed to survive one thrilling day that had come and gone ages ago—a day when stomachs fluttered and a pair of teens had adorned tux and gown with the weighty expectation of looking better than they’d ever looked in their young lives. A day when a mystery girl had accompanied Ronald Tammen to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom.
In the first shot, Ron and his date are faced forward, their eyes squinting into the sun. Her dress is white chiffon with a tiered bodice and simple jewel neckline. A similarly colored wrap hugs her neck and shoulders, bolero-style. Her corsage, an orchid, is enormous, bound to bother as the evening progresses. Her short hair is newly permed, the tight Lilt curls framing her face. (In cruel contrast, Ron’s hair glistens with product, an effort to tame his natural waves.) She is a dazzling girl next door, and anyone can see by her unprovoked smile that she’s been anticipating this moment for weeks. That smile might have been what had led Ron to ask her to the prom in the first place. She seems to be genuinely nice.
Ron is standing to the right of his date. Their shoulders are touching, possibly for the first time. He’s wearing a white jacket and shirt with a perfectly knotted black bow tie. A carnation pinned to his left lapel is the same deep shade of gray as the handkerchief peering out of his pocket—probably crimson in real life. He’s dashing without really trying. A half smile on his lips and a slight tilt of his head give him swagger. If someone had told me I was looking at a youthful Paul Newman before he made it big, I would have believed it.
It’s the second photo, the one snapped when neither of the pair is quite ready, that draws me in most. Ron’s sister Marcia, who would have been eight, is standing in front of Ron and smiling at the camera, an ornery, lopsided grin. Ron’s date is turned toward Ron, while Ron faces forward and is looking downward. His date’s smile has dimmed a little and she appears to be looking past Ron, perhaps in response to his expression, which is…what? It could be simple shyness or modesty, self-conscious embarrassment at the prospect of exchanging a glance with someone he doesn’t know very well. But there’s something else. Sadness? A pang of worry? His head is bowed as if he’s done something wrong.
“Do you happen to remember her name?” I’d asked Marcia when she’d raised the topic of Ron’s senior prom with me one spring day in 2011. We were sitting in a Denny’s in Cleveland, our inaugural meeting. It would be two more years until I had the actual photos in my hand, but the subject had always intrigued me.
“Grace,” said Marcia. “But I couldn’t tell you her last name. She was one of the girls who lived down the street.”
“Was she in Ron’s class?” I asked.
“I don’t know. She could have gone to a parochial school for all I remember.”
It was a start. I’d already bought several Maple Heights High School yearbooks on eBay—covering Ron’s sophomore, junior, and senior years. Ron had even signed a couple of them—a big, loopy signature in perfect cursive. It would be easy enough for me to leaf through the pages of the 1951 issue, Ron’s senior year, stopping only at the Graces, and then asking Marcia to help me narrow the field to the one and only Grace to grace Ron’s arm at the prom.
Grace was an uncommon name back then, unlike the Carols, Jeans, and Peggys that populated the pages. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Grace in Ron’s senior class. There was one Grace in the junior class, a Grace P., and there appeared to be no Graces in the sophomore class either, though I barely looked at that section. The students seemed so young. You’d think that I would have tried to track down the lone Grace immediately, but I didn’t. In my mind, if Ron could have taken anyone to the prom, as so many of his friends had claimed, there really wasn’t any reason for him to look beyond his own age group. Or possibly, I had already locked onto what Marcia had said: that Grace may have attended a parochial school. Her comment had reminded me of a similar remark made by a former classmate of Ron’s when I’d asked her if she’d remembered Ron ever dating anyone.
“Not anyone from our school,” she’d told me. If there was a dance, Ron was the type of guy who would bring a girl from another school, she’d said.
A nearby Catholic school would certainly qualify as another school. But the possibilities were too wide open. I put Grace on the back burner and continued my main pursuit—trying to figure out what had happened to Ron.
In the spring of 2013, Marcia and I were catching up over coffee at a Wendy’s near her new hometown, a farm community in northeast Ohio. It was one of our usual rendezvous spots whenever I came to visit. As my list of discussion topics was winding down, she said that she’d been doing some digging in preparation for our meeting. She turned to a carryall bag and began pulling out some of her most cherished possessions. There were 8” X 10”s of Marcia and her four brothers—stunning high school senior portraits that, for as long as Marcia could remember, had been lined up on a bookcase in her parents’ home, the same place where Mr. Tammen used to put his hat at the end of the day. There was a photo of her mother Marjorie when she was probably in her 20s, her eyes as big as a doe’s and her hair in a flapper-esque ‘do.
There was a yellow-bound report that Marcia had written when she was a junior in high school. Titled “The Tammen Ancestors,” it described the origins of the two sides of her family and included a chart filled with relatives’ names, many of which had already become familiar to me. Marcia’s narrative described how the Tammens (on her father’s side) and McCanns (on her mother’s) had conducted their lives—where they had lived, how they had been employed, and whom they had married and conceived. There was one exception: Ron Jr. His life had been summed up in one forlorn sentence: “Ronald Henry Tammen Jr. was born July 23, 1933.”
I could understand why Marcia had so little to say about Ron. What else could she have written about him? That he had disappeared from his second floor room in Miami’s Fisher Hall when he was a sophomore and no one had seen him since? That would have sounded too tragic. Besides, everyone in Maple Heights had already heard the story by then. There was no reason to bring it up here. Also, at that time, the family still believed that Ron was alive, and there was no telling what had happened to him. For all Marcia knew, he was a grown man with a new name and identity living in a sunny climate and raising a family of his own—one that would never make it onto her chart. By then, memories of her brother were receding so fast that one of the few things that Marcia could state unequivocally was that he had indeed been born.
The next item that Marcia pulled from her bag was a picture in a frame. I immediately recognized it as a painting of Jesus standing outside a cottage door, knocking. The artist was Warner Sallman, an American painter who had created many of the iconic religious images that I’d seen since I was a kid in Sunday school. He’d also painted the close-up, profile view of Jesus with shoulder-length hair and beard. I’d seen that image so often in hospitals and nursing homes that I figured it was Jesus. The brown and gold tones made it appear ancient, as if it had been pulled from 2000-year-old Jerusalem rubble. But no, it was painted in 1940 by a guy from Chicago. Marcia’s picture, the one titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” was painted a couple years later.
It wasn’t until Marcia had turned the frame around that I understood its significance. Marcia had won the picture as a child in a competition at church after memorizing 18 verses of the Bible. At the top, Marcia’s instructors had inked in the date of the competition: April 19, 1953, the same day that Ron had disappeared. What they’d written beneath the date gave me a chill: “Only one life—‘Twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Did the universe already know what was about to happen? Was Ron’s life about to come to an abrupt end that day?
That’s not why Marcia had held onto the print, however. The painting itself had spoken to her and, for that reason, accompanied her throughout her life, tacked to the assorted walls of the houses and apartments she’d resided in since she was ten. Only after a friend pointed out the date to her did she realize that she’d been living with that picture for as long as she’d been carrying the grief of losing her brother.
As we prepared to leave, Marcia mentioned that she also had a couple videotapes that I was welcome to borrow. She suggested I drop by her home the next day to pick them up, along with all of the other materials that she said I could take with me to duplicate. As I drove away the following day, my priceless cargo in a manila envelope on the passenger seat, it occurred to me that Marcia and I had turned a corner. I had finally earned her trust. Out of all the people who had written about Ronald Tammen’s disappearance—and after 60 years, there were quite a few—I had managed to convince Marcia that I was in it for the long haul. We both wanted the same thing: to find out what happened to her brother, and we would be allies in that search.
The first video, titled “The Phantom of Oxford,” was a half-hour documentary produced in 1976 by a TV station in Dayton. I’d already seen that tape, a re-dredging of all of the details surrounding the mystery, and featuring interviews with some of the main players. The second video was shorter and more recent. It had been produced by a Cincinnati news team when investigators were trying to determine if a dead body found in Georgia in 1953 could have been Ron. (It wasn’t.) Within the first few seconds of the news segment, there it was: a photo of Ron and his date to the high school prom. Moments later came the second photo, the one of Ron gazing downward. Grace was on the front burner once again.
I screen-grabbed stills of the prom photos along with several other shots of the family and had a few copies made of each. I then mailed a set to one of Ron’s classmates and former neighbors who agreed to let me know if she or anyone else she kept in touch with recognized Ron’s date. After several weeks of hearing nothing, I revisited the possibility that his date might have attended a parochial school. I recalled that one of Ron’s friends whom I’d interviewed a couple years earlier had attended a Catholic high school in the area.
“Do you happen to recognize this person?” I asked him in a Facebook message. “I think her first name is Grace.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” he replied.
Of course, in the back of my mind I’d always wondered if Grace might not have been her name after all. I knew how my memory worked when it came to the names of people I used to go to school with. Some names I could call up, but others stayed on the tip of my tongue, stuck at the first letter. Perhaps her name was actually Gladys or Gloria. I ran my theory past Marcia, who said no, she was quite sure it was Grace.
Her certainty increased my momentum. I found an online database of yearbooks, which made it possible to search electronically for all of the Graces who attended schools in the area, both public and private.
The first person to turn up was Grace P., the same girl I’d spotted in the 1951 Maple Heights yearbook as a junior. Her senior picture looked somewhat like the Grace in my photo, though not identical. I found her married name from a brother’s obituary and gave her a call.
No one picked up, so I began to leave my message: “Hi, I’m looking for a person named Grace, who graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1952. I’m writing a book about the disappearance of Ronald Tammen…”
“Hello?” Grace P. interrupted.
That was par for the course. Early in my project, I was pleased to discover that the people I was attempting to track down for interviews—people in their late 70s and early 80s—picked up their phones no matter what, and usually on the first or second ring. But within the last year or so, many were letting their calls roll over to voicemail. The robots and scam artists had finally jaded them too. When I mentioned the name of Ronald Tammen, however, the screening ended, and we were talking one-to-one. Ron Tammen was my instant in.
“You’re writing a book about Ronald Tammen?” she asked.
“I am,” I said, and then explained a little about my project. “I don’t suppose you went to the prom with him, did you?”
“No,” she laughed. She said she hadn’t dated very much in high school. She had an Italian father who was pretty strict in that regard.
I’d already known her answer would be no. If she’d attended the prom with Ronald Tammen, she would have volunteered that information immediately, without my asking. I followed up with a question that I asked anyone who had known Ron in high school or college. Unfortunately, it was a question that usually yielded disappointing results.
“What kinds of memories do you have of Ron back then?”
“Not much, I’m afraid,” she said. “I was just a junior when he was a senior, so I didn’t know him very well.”
That was common. Ronald Tammen wasn’t exactly a well-known guy. Sure, everyone knew him—they’d seen him playing in the orchestra or singing in the choir. They admired him. But very few had stories to share.
I was back to square one. I returned to the database, and searched for more Graces in the Cleveland area during the 1950s. This time, another Grace from Maple Heights popped up, one I hadn’t noticed before. Her name was Grace H., and her last name, with its shortage of vowels, sounded Eastern European. She was standing in the back row of the home economics club in the 1951 yearbook. She’d managed to fly below the radar because, for whatever reason, she hadn’t appeared in any of the class photos that year—not with the seniors and not in the homeroom shots of juniors, sophomores, or freshmen. Her smile was unmistakable though, as were her curls. She was the one.
I checked an online phone directory on the off chance that she was still going by her maiden name, but came up empty. After conducting a few additional Google searches, I landed on a contact page for several alumni of Maple Heights High School. Miraculously, among the names included under the class of 1952, there was Grace’s. In addition to the discovery that her new last name is gentler to the ear and by far more common, there was an email address to a customer service account at a small business in Georgia. Even if she were no longer working there, I figured, someone might be able to point me to her home address and phone number, which someone promptly did. Roughly an hour after finding Grace’s name online, I was dialing her phone number. A couple seconds after that, I was talking to her machine.
“Hi, I’m writing a book about Ronald Tammen…,” I began.
There was a beep and some jostling and then a woman’s voice. The voice was deep and full, nothing like what I’d imagined from the girl in the photos. It was the voice of a woman who’d been around the block several times over. It was a voice like some of my rowdier aunts on my father’s side—not fancy, not terribly feminine, but warm and jovial and strong.
“You’re writing a book about Ronnie Tammen?” she asked, the word Ronnie revealing the utmost in familiarity, the word Tammen accented with disbelief. “He took me to the prom!”
Deep down, I felt myself do a double cartwheel.
“I was just thinking about him yesterday!” she exclaimed. And as I filled her in on my book project and the hoops I’d jumped through to find her, Grace began to cry.
Grace and I continued our conversation the following Friday, once I’d had the chance to pull together the million or so questions I wanted to ask her, and once she had time to recover from being blindsided by a certain ghost in her past. Marcia was right—Grace had lived in the same neighborhood as the Tammens, though her time there wasn’t exactly carefree. Grace’s mother had been a single parent in an era when divorce was considered a suitable reason for shunning in the eyes of neighbors.
“My mom was the anomaly,” she told me. “My mom was the one they talked about. They didn’t have any reason to talk about her. All she did was work all the time. But that’s what single moms do—they work all the time.” I was beginning to see where Grace had gotten her moxie.
“So the year that Ron took you to the prom—he was a senior and you were a junior?” I asked. I was basing this on the date provided on the alumni page I’d found online.
“I was a sophomore,” she corrected me.
Impressive. A junior going to the prom with a senior is one thing, but a sophomore and a senior? That was a much bigger deal.
Grace described herself as an average student, adding that, other than her involvement in the home economics club, she wasn’t a joiner. (This is in contrast to Ron, who signed on to just about everything that was offered.) Still, she managed to break into a circle of popular girls whose ranks included several cheerleaders and one majorette. So many years later, it was hard for her to explain her reason for being in that particular clique.
“Maybe I was the nice one,” she offered. She admitted that she was pretty and well-liked. In 1952, the year after Ron graduated from high school, she attended the prom with the star of the football team, the highest rung there is on the high school social ladder.
Grace and her friends called themselves the “slick chicks,” a name she regretted many years later after she became a member of the National Organization for Women. When she spilled that detail, I thought about how surprised Ron would have been to see his friend—pretty, well-liked, average Grace—marching in front of the White House in support of a woman’s right to equal pay. Another surprise for him would have been the news that she’d gotten married right before her senior year of high school.
“I was precocious,” she said. “The first one who got married, the first one who had babies, the first one who got a divorce.”
“Cool,” I said with a laugh.
No, I didn’t think it was cool that she’d gotten married and divorced at such a young age. I’m not a total jerk. It was that my perception of Grace had been changing by the minute. Here was a woman who had made a few bad gambles in her life and still managed to come out for the better. A survivor.
But that was all post-Ron. When Ronald Tammen asked Grace to the prom, she was still young and naïve and, like him, didn’t have any dating chops to speak of. She doesn’t exactly remember when she first became aware of Ron, but if her Maple Heights yearbooks are any indication, it was in 1950 during her freshman—his junior—year. In 1948 (when she was in the seventh grade and he was in the ninth), he signed his name—that big, loopy signature—but nothing more. His signature doesn’t appear anywhere in her 1949 yearbook. But in 1950, he penned the following: “To the girl with the smile in her voice.”
Grace and Ron had dated a few times before and after the prom, sweet little meet-ups featuring movies and ice cream, but when he took her to the prom, that was the high point of their relationship. She was over the moon with excitement.
“I thought I was a big deal because a senior took me to the prom,” she said. “He looked really good, and he was smart, and he was musical. I really liked that. It was a good package.”
“What do you remember most about that night?” I asked.
“It seems to me that it was in a big, very nice hotel, and the weather was very nice and there was a big patio, like an outdoor space,” she said. “I just remember walking outside and it was so…the weather was perfect and it was a beautiful night and, oh my gosh, you know? It was just…”
At that critical point, our phone connection broke up, and I didn’t catch her last few words, which she followed up with a girlish giggle. I knew where she was headed though. It was sublime. It was dreamlike. It was a moment so special that, above all of the other moments that had come and gone that evening, it seared itself into her consciousness, forever occupying brain space for as long as she’d live.
Several months after our conversation, while preparing her house to go on the market, Grace would discover the program from that evening. The dance had been held in the ballroom of the Park Lane Villa, an iconic building in Cleveland that had started out in the 1920s as a luxury hotel. The date was May 19, 1951, and they’d dined on fruit cup, garden salad, Swiss steak, mashed potatoes, and peas. There were dinner rolls and pie and ice cream, and, to drink, they had their choice of coffee or milk. Grace had saved the program from all those years ago. Grace had saved the program! So, yeah, it was a special evening.
“Did you ever neck with him in the back seat of a car?” I asked.
“Probably, but not so far that I even remember it because it was not…he was not…” She paused a beat. “In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”
Weeks later, Ron would sign Grace’s yearbook for the last time. In it, he wrote, “To Grace: The sweetest and prettiest sophomore girl. I guess you know how I feel about you and I can only hope that you can go through life having a good time as I had going with you. Best of luck always, Ron.”
There was no formal break-up, although his yearbook sentiment almost conveys a tone of goodbye. Best of luck. She doesn’t recall ever seeing him during his visits home after he started at Miami.
Grace thought about the person she was during those years and what Ron might have seen in her—beyond her smile and her voice.
“He was good looking and he was on the wrestling team. He was somebody around school,” she said. (And by somebody, she means someone of substance.) “He could have taken anybody to the prom. And the fact that he took a sophomore says that he was shy and he was reaching to somebody who was not threatening to him.”
She was devastated when she heard the news about Ron. By then, she was a newlywed with a new last name. In the weeks that followed, she would worry about what might have happened to him, until she eventually concluded that someone he trusted must have lured him to a terrible end. As her life continued moving forward—after she married for the second, and then the third time—she’d think of him every so often, particularly when she read in the news that someone had gone missing. Decade after decade, she continued to carry Ronnie Tammen inside her, protected from view. Protected, that is, until 60-some years after the fact, when a late-morning phone caller seeking information about her friend caused the tears to flow as if it had happened that very week. As if she were the girl from the photo who had just been told that the handsome, perfect boy who had taken her to the prom was nowhere to be found.