Miami University’s deafening silence: proof of a cover-up, part 3

I’ll begin this blog entry by addressing an age-old conundrum head on: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I honestly don’t think so. In order for there to be a sound, you need someone to be on the receiving end. A falling tree produces vibrations—big ones—in the surrounding land, water, and air that can only be interpreted as sound by structures in the ear, be they human, bird, bunny, fox, or squirrel. Without an ear or two in the vicinity, it’s all just meaningless molecular vibrations. There’d be no crash of a trunk, no rustle of leaves, no flapping of startled wings. No sound.

Paradoxically, if you ask one or more knowledgeable sources a simple question, and no one utters a word—not one person produces a single sound vibration for your ear to hear—have they answered your question? I’d argue that they have. This time, instead of your ears doing the interpreting, it’s your brain. And my brain is telling me that if a person who’s in the know refuses to answer a reasonable and politely-asked question, then the answer may be of an incriminating nature. Somebody, prove me and my brain wrong.

I’m talking about the interview that was conducted with Carl Knox’s former secretary relatively recently by someone affiliated with the university that was summarized on one side of a laser-printed page and filed away in the university’s archives. First, I guesstimated that the timeframe of the interview was between 2001 and 2020 based mostly on computer and printer technology. Then we were able to narrow the cut-off to 2015, the year in which the Western College Memorial Archives, where the summary had been housed, were moved to University Archives. Later, I ascertained that the interview likely occurred between 2001 and 2008 after learning that the most recent document to be added to the vertical filing cabinet where the summary was kept was done so in 2008. We don’t know which document or documents was added in 2008—their record-keeping system was woefully imprecise—but we know that nothing in the file cabinet arrived after that year, so the summary can’t be any more recent. I’ll explain that discovery in a little more detail below.

But the time period in question is about to shrink again. Based on records posted on the Miami Libraries’ website as well as documents I’ve obtained through public records requests, I believe the interview with Carl Knox’s secretary happened between January 2006 and December 2008. Let’s think about that for a second. Here we have a document whose origin Miami officials have been claiming not to know anything about—a document that, I believe, was purposely undated and unsourced in order not to raise any flags with anyone who happened upon it—and we’ve narrowed it down to occurring sometime between (I believe) 2006 and 2008. I also have a pretty good idea of who wrote it. Do you think the people at the heart of this little cover-up are impressed? Maybe! Or maybe they’re really annoyed. It’s so hard to tell what they’re feeling when they’re not speaking to you.

The 2006-2008 timeframe may sound familiar to some of you. I’d first proposed it on Facebook a couple months ago, at which time a savvy Miami alum (A BIG thank you to Kristin Woosley! Guuuurl, we see you and your amazing memory!) who was a student back then was able to provide even more helpful identifying info. Her info was so helpful, in fact, I felt as if I may have a tough time promising anonymity if someone happened to come forward. For this reason, I decided to take down the post and to conduct my research out of view.

That research has been ongoing, and I’ve discovered some promising new details. But after receiving the silent treatment about those discoveries from so many people, I’ve decided to forego that strategy. What the heck, let’s bring some of this new info into the light of day, shall we? I’ll still refer to Carl Knox’s former secretary as AD (short for assistant to the dean), and I’ll continue to protect other people’s identities for various reasons as well. But whenever possible, especially when discussing people who are acting in official capacities, they’ll be named. Also, let’s do this in one of my favorite formats: Q&A. 

Why do you think the interview took place no later than 2008?

The 2008 comes from a public records request I’d submitted. As we’ve discussed, the summary is part of the Western College Memorial Archives in folder number 18, titled Ghosts and Legends. When archivists receive donations, the standard practice is to create an accessions record for that material documenting where the material came from, when it arrived, a description of the contents, the size of the collection, and other details. Since 2015, Miami University has subscribed to ArchivesSpace, an online database for cataloguing its holdings. Knowing this, I emailed the Office of the General Counsel (OGC), requesting the accessions records that, to my understanding, should have been created for the interview summary. 

What I received from the OGC was an explanatory email as well as a number of screen grabs from ArchivesSpace. The email said that the record had been created by Jacky Johnson, the university archivist, long after the document had been acquired as well as after the university’s transition to ArchivesSpace. “This document predates our cataloguing system and our current University Archives employees,” said OGC representative Aimee Smart.

The screen grabs weren’t specific to the document in question or even folder 18, but pertained to the vertical file cabinet in which the folder was housed. The vertical file was one of the most frequently visited file cabinets in the Western College Archives reading room. In addition to Ghosts and Legends, its subjects include Western College presidents, Western College faculty and staff; and Western College buildings, such as Peabody Hall and Kumler Memorial Chapel. Sadly, most of the fields of the accessions record were left blank. Johnson’s name occupied one of the fields, and in another field was an estimate that the file was two cubic yards in size. However, one section was helpful: Dates. Under “Inclusive Dates,” which is defined on an archivist website as “The dates of the oldest and most recent items in a collection, series, or folder,” the Begin date was 1810—one year after Miami was founded—and the End date was 2008. Therefore, if the recordkeeping is accurate, AD’s interview had to have taken place no later than 2008. I’m inclined to think that AD was interviewed in 2008, but let’s not pin ourselves down just yet.

Why do you think the interview happened no earlier than 2006?

This was more of a guess, but it makes so much sense. On Miami’s Special Collections and Archives website is a page titled “Miami Stories Oral” (short for Oral History Project). This page lists a number of interviews that had been conducted with past students, staff members, and administrators of the university, which seems like a natural fit for AD’s interview as well. In addition, nearly all of the interviews had taken place during a four-year period, from the beginning of 2006 through the end of 2009. When I factored in the accessions end date of 2008, I arrived at the 2006-2008 timeframe.

What “helpful identifying info” did Woosley provide?

After I posted my theory on Facebook, Woosley immediately recognized the Miami Stories/Oral History Project as being part of Miami’s bicentennial, which was officially celebrated in 2009. She mentioned how students and alumni were being videotaped during alumni reunions in the years leading up to the big event, and that detail jived with what I’d discovered in the digital archives. I’d noticed how a large chunk of the interviews had been conducted over the alumni weekends beginning in 2006, while other interviews—mostly of people who lived near Oxford—were conducted at other times of the year. (The recordings can be found online here.) This was a huge breakthrough and immediately opened up new research possibilities. 

Why was having AD’s interview potentially tied to Miami’s bicentennial so helpful to your research?

If the interview with AD had been conducted as a stand-alone effort in which some student or staff member had simply thought it would be a nice thing to do, then the missing source materials would be way too hard to track down. There wouldn’t be a trail. But if it’s tied to Miami’s bicentennial, documents would have been produced throughout the four-year process. Funders would be thanked, coordinators would be tapped, budgets would be tabulated, progress would be charted, and achievements ballyhooed—all on paper and obtainable through public records requests. And with all of those documents, new details would potentially dribble out that could lead to even more record requests, and eventually, evidence of an interview with AD.

Furthermore, because AD had been affiliated with Miami Libraries for most of her work life as well as afterward (I was told that she had a courtesy office in King Library), I’d always felt that her interview was conducted by someone with the library. Well, guess who played a major participatory role in the bicentennial? The Miami Libraries, with Jerome Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, serving on the Bicentennial Commission. So, that fits too. 

And? Did you find any evidence of AD’s missing interview?

I think so. Although I’m sure lots more documents were generated back then (and to be fair, 2009 was 12 years ago, so I’m glad to have what they were able to provide), there was one that was especially noteworthy. The document is a progress report that provided a running count of all of the taped interviews that had been conducted from 2006 up through December 2008. At the bottom of the report, above the line indicating that there were 91 recordings in all, there’s this: “Other recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons,” and after the tab is the number 3. Was one of those three recordings AD?

I tried to think of other possible documents that might reveal the names of the three unposted interviewees. One of the narrative updates had discussed the taping and editorial process, which required that all of the tapes first be converted from DVT to DVD format by the library’s digital staff. I submitted a request seeking any internal documents from those staff in which they tracked every video they’d converted for the Oral History Project during the 2006-2008 timeframe. That request yielded nothing. Another narrative described how consent forms had been signed ahead of time, so I requested AD’s signed consent form. After weeks of waiting, the email I received from the OGC was “Ms. Wenger, We are unable to locate records related to an interview with [AD].” I also sought a comprehensive listing of all OHP interviewees, but the list I received was incomplete, and of course, AD’s name wasn’t there. However, I did find one person or possibly two people on that list whose interviews hadn’t been posted online.

What about the people most closely associated with the Oral History Project? What did they have to say about AD and the three missing interviews?

I’ve had email conversations with several people who had worked on the Oral History Project. Our conversations were “on background” and therefore I won’t be providing their names or direct quotes. The people who responded did so quickly and said that they didn’t conduct an interview with AD. I believe them. One also said that they didn’t recall AD being interviewed for the Oral History Project (I believe that person was speaking honestly too), though the others didn’t go that far. As for the three interviews that weren’t posted online, no one could shed light on that question.

There was one retiree who didn’t respond to my email. I’ll refer to that person as Retiree A. Retiree A had interviewed several people for the project, at least one of whom wasn’t posted online.

How do you know that Retiree A even read your email? 

I don’t. However, I sent via USPS a hard copy of the email and some follow-up documents to their home, asking them to let me know either way if they had conducted the interview with AD. I also asked them if they knew about the three interviews that hadn’t been posted online and, again, to please let me know either way. That package was delivered on Monday, June 21. As of today, I haven’t heard from Retiree A.

Wasn’t there another retiree whom you thought had knowledge of the interview? Have you heard from him?

As you may recall, I discuss another retiree quite a bit in “The blog post I was hoping never to write.”  To help avoid confusion, let’s refer to that person as Retiree B. To date, he has not responded to my email. But again, as some of you have pointed out, there’s no way to be sure that he read it.

To help address that question, this past April, I Fed-Exed a follow-up letter with additional background information to Retiree B’s home, once again promising anonymity and asking him to check his university email account and to let me know if he knew anything about AD’s interview. I’m still waiting to hear from him. I also promised Retiree B that I wouldn’t be approaching him ever again with that question. People have a right to live their lives without forever being bothered by the likes of me. He knows I’d like to speak with him. I’m just hoping he decides to come forward on his own. If I’m off base, I’d very much like to know that. And if he has information about the Tammen case, well, I think he knows by now that I’d like to hear that too. 

What about the higher-ups? What do they have to say?

William Modrow’s response

Do you remember back in February 2021, when I was asking Bill Modrow, head of Special Collections, about AD’s interview? In an effort to find someone who knew something about it, I was trying to get a handle on how they went about conducting interviews of former employees. The exact words I used were: “how staff members arrange and conduct interviews with former employees for a project spearheaded by Collections, such as for the oral history project, and how those interview materials are subsequently processed.” I’d actually used those three words with him: Oral History Project.

Do you know what Modrow didn’t mention to me? He didn’t mention Miami’s bicentennial to me, which would have been a normal response. You know, like “Oh, the Oral History Project was a short-term project for the bicentennial. We don’t do those interviews routinely.”

No, his response to me was “We do not conduct oral history interviews. I do not have the resources to do this nor do we have an Oral History program. What we have done in the past – Freedom Summer for example came with the resources and partners to accomplish.”

I specifically asked about the Oral History Project and he answers with Freedom Summer. Was he trying to throw me off course by diverting my attention away from the bicentennial? I don’t know. Maybe the obvious response didn’t occur to him at that moment, but it certainly looks that way to me.

Jerome Conley’s response

Several weeks ago, I emailed Dr. Conley, dean of Miami Libraries, providing my evidence concerning the Oral History Project videos that hadn’t been posted online. (The 2008 progress report states there were three, but a tally up through 2009 indicates that there may be four.) Because Dr. Conley sat on the Presidential Bicentennial Commission, a leading endeavor of which was the Oral History Project, I felt he would be in a position to answer the question. If he didn’t know the answer, he would know who would.

I asked him or a spokesperson to let me know about who the individuals were and why their interviews weren’t posted. I didn’t mention AD’s name in that email and I didn’t provide a deadline, saying that I figured it may take some time to track down those answers. This past Wednesday at around 11:30 a.m., I wrote him again, letting him know that I’d be posting my blog entry sometime this weekend, and requesting his response by Friday at 5 p.m. ET. His response at a little after noon was:

I would like to thank you for your note. I was on vacation with my family earlier this month. I am unaware of the videos that you mentioned.  

At about 2:30 p.m. that day, I followed up with this email: 

Dr. Conley,

Thank you so much for getting back to me. Here’s what I’m attempting to ascertain: Do you know of any reason that I shouldn’t believe that one of the three unposted OHP interviews was with [AD]? 

In other words, the 2008 progress report (attached) states that there were three “recordings not on Website for miscellaneous reasons.” Was [AD] one of these three recordings?

Again, thank you.

5 p.m. has come and gone and, so far, I haven’t heard back from him.

Do you know who put the kibosh on AD’s interview?

We still don’t know if AD’s interview was one of the three Oral History Project interviews that weren’t posted, but for this question, let’s say hypothetically that it was. I’d asked organizers of the Oral History Project who had veto power over the videos—namely who might have made the decision not to post a particular interview, for whatever reason. No one knew of any measures that were in place for pulling a video. 

After a tape was converted to DVD, only light technical editing would be performed, if needed. Somewhere in the process, University Archives staff reviewed the digitized tape and Web copy before it was posted online. By the sound of it, University Archives was one of the last stops before a video was posted to the website. Though that doesn’t mean they would have been the ones who decided not to post a video, they may have had a good idea regarding why the decision was made. 

Do you know who wrote the summary?

I can’t say for sure who wrote AD’s interview summary, but I think it was someone from University Archives. Here’s why:

The location of the document

The summary sheet was originally stored in the Western College Memorial Archives, which had been a satellite to the University Archives. (Those archives are now housed on the third floor of King Library along with the University Archives.) It’s weird that it would have been placed there, though, since the Western College archives is intended to cover topics related specifically to Western College. Regardless, because it was part of the archives and because AD was a long-time friend of the library, I’ve always felt that someone from University Archives had typed it up and placed it there. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, you know where to find me.

AD’s job title

When I made my initial guess as to when the interview summary was typed up, one consideration was AD’s job title. Because AD was Carl Knox’s secretary—that’s how she referred to herself in a memo—I found it telling that whoever typed up the summary referred to her as the assistant to the dean of men. That sounded more recent, since the word secretary was mothballed sometime around 2001. That’s why I had 2001 at the lower end of my timeframe. (It’s a moot point now since we’ve moved it up to 2006.)

As luck would have it, I was looking through a 1952-53 Miami University Directory one day when I landed on AD’s name. Even though she informally went by the title of secretary, in the directory, she’s referred to as “asst. in office of dean of men and to freshman advisers.” “Assistant to the Dean of Men” sounds a lot like “asst. in office of dean of men,” which leads me to believe that whoever was typing up the summary sheet had access to the 1952-53 directory. The 1952-53 phone directory, as with other directories, can be found in University Archives.

The font

Here we go again, right? 😉 Even though I’m not the best person at analyzing typefaces (see the blog post on St. Clair Switzer’s typewriter), maybe I’m better at recognizing laser printer fonts than typewriter fonts? This could be a very minor point, which is why I’m placing it here, near the bottom of this blog post, but I believe the font used in the summary matches the font of the Oral History Project reports.

Hear me out. When I first wrote about AD’s interview summary in December 2020, I said that the font seemed to be Times New Roman. And what do you know, when I typed the summary in Times New Roman and compared that to the photo I took of the summary from the archives, they looked the same to me. So far, so good.

WELL, when the OGC sent me the reports I’d requested from the Oral History Project, most were written in Times New Roman. I know…it’s a popular font choice for some. It’s also rather, um…dull, shall we say? But the point here is that whoever typed up the summary could have also been a central player with the Oral History Project, and the folks in University Archives certainly occupied a pivotal position on that team.

Times New Roman sample for comparison
Summary of AD interview

Are you OK? You seem down.

Oh, gosh. I was trying to hide it, but yeah, I’m bummed. Here’s me, a wannabe author who relies on archival information for this book I’m working on, and I’ve found myself in a faceoff with what used to be my favorite place on campus. Every trip to Oxford used to include a visit to University Archives. While, at this point, it’s difficult for me to determine what else I can do to get to the bottom of the Miami Libraries’ interview with AD, I don’t plan to walk away. But I’m not gonna lie. It’s disheartening. 

Why do you think the university is acting this way? 

Actually, I think it’s important to look at the actions of individuals versus thinking of the university as some sort of impenetrable monolith, though sometimes it feels like the latter. The two most common responses from people who I think may know something about AD’s interview is to not respond at all, or to attempt to answer as much as they can honestly, leaving out anything that would put them in danger of lying. Because—and I truly believe this—most people don’t like to lie, especially people who work in a library. 

However, I also think that some individuals at the university have been deceptive, and in a couple instances, untruthful. (They know who they are.) I will also say this: Whatever it is that’s keeping people from coming forward must be pretty damn big. 

The blog post I was hoping never to write

I never wanted to write this post. Honestly, as I sit here typing, I’m hoping this thing never sees the light of day. If you’re reading it now, please bear this in mind: I’m not a monster. On the contrary, people who know me find me to be rather funny and delightful (for the most part). It has never been my desire for the mere mention of my name to give anyone acid reflux. 

But here we are.

Today’s topic has to do with the undated, anonymous, single-page write-up that I found inside a folder in University Archives during one of my trips to Oxford. The document summarizes an interview that had taken place with Carl Knox’s former secretary about the university’s investigation into Ron Tammen’s disappearance. It’s my belief that the interview took place relatively recently.

Here’s why:

The document was produced after Fisher Hall was torn down in the summer of ‘78

In bullet #4 of the document, Knox’s former secretary had described some of the steps officials took when Fisher Hall was torn down in 1978, including checking the underlying cisterns and wells for signs of Ron. The year 1978 was 43 years ago, therefore, we know that the document is 43 years old or younger. That’s our baseline.

The document was produced with relatively recent computer technology

The document itself looks as if it could have been printed yesterday. Its paper is clean and bright white, the font appears to be Times New Roman, and it was printed on a laser printer. Also, it looks as if it was written using a relatively recent version of Microsoft Word on a desktop or laptop. 

For readers who weren’t around in the early days of office computers, I’d like to present an informal, abbreviated, highly personalized history for you now. 

  • At least from my experience, desktop computers weren’t a ubiquitous piece of office equipment until at least the mid-1980s, and, in those days, they weren’t anything like what we have today. The computers were clunky. The screens were black with blinking cursors. The print-outs were rolls of paper with punch-out edges. There was no actual “font” per se—just dots in the shapes of letters. The printers themselves were unbearably noisy.
  • In 1985, when I started my first real job out of grad school, there was one computer in the entire office for everyone to use, and, to be perfectly honest, it didn’t receive a lot of traffic. At that time, computers seemed to be more for “numbers” people, as opposed to the rest of us, who were joyfully churning out our communiques on IBM Selectrics and word processors. 
  • But advances were being made at that time. In 1984, Apple’s Macintosh computer came out, which provided an approachable interface for non-computer types like me. A year later, Microsoft Windows was released, which aimed to provide the same type of user-friendly experience for PC users. They weren’t anything like what we have now, but they were off to a good start.
  • I think things really took off in the 1990s—first with Windows 95, a vastly improved operating system for PCs, and then the iMac, Apple’s colorful all-in-one computer released in 1998, which especially appealed to the writing and graphic-design crowd. 
  • These were exciting times and we reveled in them. Phrases like “desktop publishing” and WYSIWYG (pronounced wiz-ee-wig, short for “what you see is what you get”) were our newfound jargon. We began throwing around the word serif when describing our font choices, both when we opted for them (as with Palatino or Times New Roman) and when we went “sans” (as with Arial, Helvetica, and the like). We learned the importance of bullets and bold type to break up walls of grey text. The documents we cranked out took a noticeable turn for the better—not just in communication offices, but in offices everywhere. (You can view a progression of the various Microsoft Word versions throughout the years to see how things have improved.)
  • Finally, although the laser printer was invented in 1969, it was at least the 1990s when laser printers became affordable enough for a typical place of employment to purchase one, often for staff to share. 

So, based on all of these factors—the font, page layout, and printer—I think we can conservatively say that the document was produced sometime after the mid-1990s (and probably later), shaving off at least another 17 years from our baseline. We’re now at roughly 26 years ago or less. 

The author of the document avoids using the word “secretary”

As I described in “Proof of a cover-up, part 2,” another giveaway of the document’s age is how the writer chose to use a different term for secretary, even though that was the person’s title in 1953. The title of secretary fell out of favor roughly 20 years ago, and was replaced with job titles such as administrative assistant or administrative professional. The interviewer refers to Knox’s secretary as the “Assistant to the Dean of Men,” which reflects a sensitivity to modern times. 

So that’s my answer: I believe that the interview took place 20 years ago or less, which would also mean that it took place in 2001 or later. Why does it matter? It matters because 2001 wasn’t that long ago. Although the university hasn’t been able to produce any record of the full interview, there’s still a chance that whoever conducted the interview is still walking around with first-hand knowledge of what was said. Of special interest to me are the words that Carl Knox’s secretary wasn’t permitted to say in front of news reporters.

When I first wrote about the summary on this website, I chose not to identify Knox’s secretary by name, referring to her as AD (assistant to the dean) instead. I will continue to do so out of respect for her family. The highly-regarded woman who personified a “life well lived” passed away last October, and her family is still grieving. But I am now going to share some additional information with you so you can better understand why I’ve been pursuing this lead with the exuberance of a Rottweiler whose favorite tennis ball has been yanked from her slobbery jaws.

AD and her husband were a big deal at Miami

AD’s husband was an esteemed professor and dean at Miami, and, after retirement, a professor emeritus. AD and her husband were also big donors to the university. The university’s library houses a large collection in her husband’s name. AD had assisted him with his research. So, it makes perfect sense that someone with the university would have an interest in interviewing her. What’s more…

AD was well known at the library

After working for Carl Knox, AD was employed by Miami University’s library as a cataloguer. She also worked as a volunteer in Special Collections, which oversees the University Archives, the place where the interview summary sits in a box. Employees in Miami’s library knew her for many years and remember her fondly, including the current university archivist, Jacqueline (Jacky) Johnson. It would make sense for someone within the library system to want to record her vast institutional knowledge for posterity—I mean, good grief, she’d begun working for the university in 1952 and she even had an inside track to the Tammen story. She was perhaps the oldest living Miami employee from that era, which means that she was quite possibly the oldest living Miami employee from any era. 

The first person I contacted was Jacky Johnson in University Archives to see if she could provide me with AD’s full interview. Johnson let me know that she didn’t have the interview, so I contacted Carole Johnson (presumably no relation to Jacky) who was serving as the interim director of University News and Communications after longtime director Claire Wagner had retired in March. I wanted to find out if someone from the news office could help me track down the interview. 

After getting no response, I went higher. I contacted Jerome Conley, dean of Miami University Libraries, and Jaime Hunt, who’d recently been hired as vice president and chief marketing and communications officer, and who oversees University Communications and Marketing. I hoped that, in their senior positions, they would have a better idea of where I should turn. Both were responsive, and the note from Dr. Conley was especially gracious. He knew AD too and let me know that she “…was indeed a very special scholar and lover of libraries. Yes, she recently passed and the world is indeed a tad darker. She was a kind person.”

This was consistent with everything else I’d read about her. If anyone from the library had conducted the interview, I couldn’t imagine them tossing the source materials. 

By way of a cc from Dean Conley, William (Bill) Modrow and Jacky Johnson entered the conversation. Modrow, who heads up Special Collections, promised to work with Johnson in conducting a thorough search of the archives and to get back to me. I’ll cut to the chase: the answer that came back on February 1 was no, we don’t have the interview. I asked more questions: can you at least tell me when was the interview conducted and by whom, and what was the source of the document I’d found in the archives? He sent responses, though no clear answers. Feeling frustrated, I asked about their protocol, trying to better understand how something like that could just disappear. His responses reflected his frustration with me too. We were done.

That’s when I did something that I save for only the most desperate of times. I filed a public records request with Miami’s Office of the General Counsel seeking all related emails from the library and communications offices for the period of December 5, 2020 (when I first approached Carole Johnson) to the present. As I mentioned in my Facebook post, this isn’t considered the friendliest of gestures—in fact, it is decidedly unfriendly—but sometimes you need to take these measures to break free from the usual boilerplate and get to the kernel of truth. Perhaps most dissatisfying for me was how I was now in a war of sorts with the two areas of specialization that have always been near and dear to me. For practically all my adult life, I’ve worked in communications offices at universities and in government, and as for libraries—good Lord, who doesn’t love libraries?

After initially pushing back, the OGC asked me to whittle down my request to specific names and to resubmit my request, which I did. About a week later, I got the emails.

I’m not going to lie: I wasn’t all too excited to dive in. For readers who haven’t met me in person, I’m a human with feelings inside. I like people to like me. If someone is saying mean or snarky things behind my back, I’d rather not know. However, after staring at that unopened email in my inbox for a little while, I put on my bullet-proof bathing suit and I dove.

I’m posting all of the pertinent emails in chronological order with some added narration from me, if needed. Some of the conversations were with me, some were about me. I’ve blacked out AD’s real name as well as the name of one retiree whom I’ll discuss in a second. I’ve also blacked out everyone’s email addresses as well as other library staff members’ names, since they’re really not involved. Lastly, I cut off most of the email closings—the polite words of sign-off that occasionally ran counter to what was said in the email—to help speed things along. So let’s all grab a favorite beverage and get reading, shall we?

Whew! Fun, right?

If you were expecting to read someone’s full confession admitting that they’d conducted the interview, then destroyed it, and, by the way, the forbidden words were X, Y, and Z, well, you’re probably disappointed. But don’t be. Admissions of that sort are pretty rare to see in print, I’d imagine.

However, even though specific words weren’t typed out, an underlying message did come through. It’s subtle but noticeable, and it has to do with human nature and how we respond when we don’t want to answer a question directly. 

You see, for some time, I’d felt that the one key person who might know something about the interview was a long-time employee of Miami University’s library who’d retired fairly recently. More than once, I asked Modrow and Johnson if they’d asked that person about AD’s interview. In response, they informed me how much the retiree had done for me when he was employed by the university, and they also let it be known how much they or their staff had done for me. Of course I’ll always be grateful for their customer service, but to be honest, it’s not relevant to the question. 

Do you know what no one said in response to my question? No one said that they’d reached out to the retiree—who still has a university email address and is therefore ostensibly quite reachable. That, for me, was telling. These are the university’s archivists. These are the people who, according to Modrow, don’t discard materials held in their special collections and archives. Wouldn’t you think that they’d want to know the answer too? 

And so, I emailed the retiree myself. Here’s what I wrote:

Click on image for better view

Look, I can totally see how a situation like this could happen to a good person, and I let him know that in paragraph 2.

In paragraph 4, I promised anonymity, not only to him, but to anyone affiliated with the library if they happen to know who conducted the interview.

Chief of all, I told him that if he didn’t know who’d conducted the interview, all he had to say was “no,” and I would never ask the question again.

My tone was sympathetic and even collaborative, not confrontational. Let’s work together, I told him. 

You know what he did?

Nothing. He didn’t do a thing. I’d even cc’d Modrow and Johnson to keep them informed of what I was promising him. I thought they might have an interest in what he had to say and I also thought they could give him a heads up to alert him of my email, if need be.

No one responded to my email.

Studying the words, listening to the behaviors

Throughout my research into the Ronald Tammen case, I’ve occasionally found myself in situations in which someone’s words may tell me one thing but their behavior is saying something else. And you know what? I’ve discovered that there’s a world of information available to us when we listen more intently to a person’s behavior. In my experience, if the words and behavior don’t match up, behavior always wins.

Here are five warning signs I noticed when I paid closer attention to people’s behavior as I read their emails:

#1: They didn’t answer my question.

Again, in my mind, if anyone knew something about AD’s interview, it was the retiree, and I’d asked Modrow and Johnson repeatedly if they’d contacted him. But instead of answering, they would tell me how much work Jacky and the retiree had done for me over the years. Those are true statements, but they’re beside the point. No one answered my question—directly or behind my back—even though I do believe he was consulted, possibly on January 25. If someone had just said, “I checked with him, and he said that he’s not aware of the interview,” I would have taken them at their word and walked away. Their evasiveness is harder to walk away from. 

#2: There were signs of worry and an effort to batten down the hatches.

The email I’d written to Jerome Conley and Jaime Hunt was nothing special. In fact, it was pretty routine. I didn’t give them a deadline and there wasn’t an ultimatum to be found anywhere. I was seeking help. But one person stands out as being noticeably concerned about my request. Sometime on December 14 (we don’t know what time), Johnson had left a voicemail message for Carole Johnson of the news office. In an email to her staff the next day, Carole speculated that it might be about my inquiry, and then, in a follow-up email, Carole confirmed that the two had finally connected and Jacky had filled her in about my ongoing interactions with the folks in archives. That’s fine, but it’s also a little weird. Why did Jacky feel the need to contact Carole by phone? Why not just shoot her an email? And when did she call?

At 12:30-ish the following day, Jacky Johnson sent library staff an email asking them to be on the look-out for any contact from yours truly, and if I were to reach out to any of them, they were to contact her. On January 22, I emailed Modrow asking for a status update on my request, and he followed up with Johnson, who told him the following Monday that she was unable to find anything else. Modrow didn’t get right back to me though, which makes me wonder if he’d asked Johnson to do some additional checking, perhaps with the retiree.

Several hours later, Johnson emailed two of the same staff members as before, referring to the retiree’s past work with me, and instructing them, once again, to contact her if they should ever hear from me. As you may have noticed, none of the staff members ever needed to alert Johnson about me, because that’s not how I roll. I play by the rules, and by that time, I was only talking to Modrow. However, even that bit of journalistic courtesy seemed bothersome to her. When Modrow mentioned to her that I’d been in touch with him “twice since yesterday,” she asked him to keep her informed of whatever I was asking for. (I had no additional requests—just the same old questions that I’d repeat as needed.) With the safeguards she was putting into place, Johnson appeared to be most concerned with controlling all communication with me. 

#3  The location where the summary document is housed, which may provide a clue to its origin, was never mentioned in emails.

The first time I saw the document, I was sitting in the main study room of University Archives, on the third floor of King Library. But that’s not where the document usually lives. Its home is in the “Ghosts and Legends” folder, folder 18, which is located in the Western College Memorial Archives in Peabody Hall. Someone had kindly delivered the folder to King Library ahead of my visit so that it was there waiting when I arrived.*

In an email written February 2, Johnson told Modrow that she and the retiree had given me the summary and she thought it had been scanned by two assistants. But that’s not consistent with my records. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t seen the contents of folder 18 until August 2019, five years after the retiree had left his position. Also, no one had made a scan for me—I’d snapped the photo with my iPhone. That shadowy shot of a tilted sheet of printer paper is mine all mine, people, ©2019, all rights reserved. 

Interestingly, the two staff members whom Johnson had mentioned as having scanned it were the same ones she’d sent a second cautionary email to on January 25, and it was one of these staffers who’d helped retrieve folder 18 for me prior to my 2019 visit. 

Why is the location of folder 18 important? One tidbit worth noting is that AD’s interview might have been conducted by someone affiliated with the archives housed in Peabody Hall. Coincidentally, Jacky Johnson was the head archivist there from 2005 to 2015, prior to her becoming head of University Archives. 

#4 They showed virtually no interest in obtaining AD’s interview.

As I mentioned earlier, an interview with AD should have been of significant interest to people in University Archives. My original email seeking help in finding source materials should have been met with genuine curiosity. You’d think they’d want to find out if they had source materials or at least where the summary came from.

When I filed my public records request for emails, I’d at least hoped to see an email trail of staff putting their heads together and brainstorming or consulting with other staff. That behavior is evident with the news and communications folks, but not on the archives’ side, who could be described as defensive from the get-go. 

The search itself appeared to be conducted by Johnson alone, who would send meager updates saying “I looked” or “I looked in the collection,” but nothing more in-depth than that. The most detailed response she’d provided was that she’d looked in AD’s husband’s faculty file. There was never any mention of databases searched under keywords A, B, and C, or however else she might have conducted a thorough search. From what I can tell, she didn’t reach out to anyone else to see if they might have information about the interview, unless, as I mentioned, she checked with the retiree but never said so. 

#5 The retiree didn’t answer a simple yes-or-no question, even when I told him that I’d go away if his answer was ‘no.’

When I sent my email to the retiree, he didn’t answer my simple yes-or-no question about whether he knew who conducted the interview. If the answer was “no”—that he didn’t know—all he had to do was say so, and I would go away. I promised him as much. That would have been the easiest thing for him to do. Instead, I heard crickets.** 

An early behavioral clue from the retiree

The last time I saw the retiree was in 2013, one year before he stepped down from his post at Miami. During that visit to Oxford, I was interested in learning more about Miami’s psychology department in 1953, particularly Everett Patten and St. Clair Switzer. As usual, the retiree was helpful. I remember him sitting in his office and asking me for one of their names. 

“Everett Patten,” I said.

As I stood outside his office, he began typing on his computer. And then he stopped. 

“Oh…,” he said. Or maybe it was “hmmm.” It was a small but audible reaction.

 “What?” I asked.

“Hypnosis,” he said. He was looking at an old article on Patten in the Miami Student, which he probably printed out for me. But that small reaction from him had always stayed with me. It was a signal of recognition, as if it wasn’t the first time the topic had come into his field of view.

And that raises another point. The retiree was practically a walking, talking search engine when it came to Miami University history and AD was a longtime friend of the library. I’m sure he knew her well. If anyone would have known she’d been Carl Knox’s secretary, I’d think he would have. And yet, when he also knew I’d been working for a while on a book about Ronald Tammen, he never mentioned that there was a person who still lived in Oxford who could provide a first-hand account of the university’s investigation. You’d think he might have told me about her. 

Miami University’s response

The two people whose behavior I found most perplexing throughout this whole process were Jacky Johnson and the retiree, and I said so to the university. I approached Carole Johnson with a draft of my blog post plus the email documentation, and asked her for a university comment or, if possible, a confidential conversation, since it appeared to me that the individuals knew something about the interview. 

Today at 5 p.m., Carole Johnson sent the following comment. (Note that I am redacting AD’s actual name as well as the retiree’s.)

“The University’s response remains unchanged. The University staff that you keep contacting, including myself, Jacky Johnson, and William Modrow, do not know who conducted the interview with XXXXX nor do we know anyone who does know the answer to that question. We do not know what was said in that interview beyond what is reflected in the document previously provided to you. We have thoroughly searched our Archival records and they have been provided to you. XXXXX retired from the University. We will not contact him on your behalf. I know that this is not the response you were hoping for but your repeated inquiries will not change the answer. There is nothing more that the university can do to assist you in your search for information.”

Thank you very much for this response. And because I’m the blogger here, I get to comment on the university’s comment:

I kept contacting the university staff because they wouldn’t answer my questions. It’s my general practice—maybe even a little personality quirk of mine—to stop asking a question once it’s been answered. Modrow and Johnson never answered my question about whether they’d consulted with the retiree. Ne.Ver. They still haven’t answered it. It took several back-and-forths before they addressed my questions about whether they knew who conducted the interview and when.

As for Carole Johnson’s remark that “I know this is not the response you were hoping for,” the response I actually hope for—and what I’ll continue hoping and working for—is the truth. And I will seek the truth about Ronald Tammen even if the university has apparently moved on.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

— ERRATA —

*Since writing the above post, I’ve learned that the Western College Memorial Archives is now located on the third floor of King Library, along with the other archives. The three archives were brought to the same location in 2015–first to Withrow Court Annex before that building was torn down, and later to the present location at King Library: https://miamioh.edu/news/top-stories/2015/02/archives-all-together.html. Sorry that my original info was out-of-date. When I was asking staff members for the “Ghosts and Legends” folder in 2019, I’m pretty sure no one told me of its new location. (In fairness, it probably seemed like a minor point to them.) Also, no one corrected this blog post when I ran it by them for comment. Nevertheless, the fact that the folder had been housed in the Western College Memorial Archives is still pertinent. Hold that thought, OK? I’ll tell you why in the 3-11-2021 update below.

**Under warning sign #5, I’ve revised the last sentence and removed a second paragraph because they implied knowledge on the part of the retiree, when in fact we still don’t know if he has read the email. Silence can have many meanings. My apologies for not stating that more clearly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

UPDATE (3-11-2021)

As you know, one question I’ve been asking repeatedly is where did the summary of AD’s interview come from? Who donated it to the archives and when? If we can track down who donated the summary, we may be able to find the person who conducted the interview. Who knows: maybe the donor and the interviewer are the same person. Also, now that we know that the Western College Memorial Archives were moved off of Western Campus in 2015 (see above, next to *), that potentially adds a “no later than” date to our timeframe. If folder 18 was moved out of Peabody Hall in 2015, then I think the chances are good that the summary was typed up sometime in the 2001-2015 timeframe.

I consulted the website of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the professional society for archivists, and discovered that it recommends that university and college archivists have a policy in which donations, called “accessions,” are documented. Furthermore, the SAA recommends that the date and the transferring office or donor’s name are recorded, among other information. Consequently, I filed a public records request today with the Office of the General Counsel for Miami’s accessions policy. Once I understand Miami’s policy, I’ll be able to submit a second public records request for the specific documents that would be tied to folder 18 and, hopefully, AD’s interview summary. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Dear Miami University Office of the General Counsel,

I am submitting this public records request under the Ohio Open Records Law, §149.43 et seq. I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of the policy by which Miami University’s University Archives creates and maintains its accession records for its archival holdings.

For your background, the Society of American Archivists, an organization to which the University Archives of Miami University is affiliated, has set standards for the creation and maintenance of accession records. According to SAA’s Guidelines for College and University Archives: “Archivists create an accession record—noting the records’ date, title, bulk, condition, transferring office or donor, conservation needs, and access restrictions—when records come into the archives.” [See: https://www2.archivists.org/node/14804.]

I am seeking Miami’s policy for all aspects related to the creation and maintenance of its accession records. If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $50.

I am currently writing a blog and book on the Ronald Tammen disappearance, and this request is part of my news-gathering efforts. I would appreciate a prompt response to this request.

If you expect a significant delay in responding to or in fulfilling this request, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

Sincerely,

Jennifer Wenger

Proof of a cover-up, part 2: hidden buzzers, forbidden words

Joe Cella, the Hamilton Journal News reporter who never let the Tammen story die and who unearthed essential details about the case even decades later, would be turning 100 today if he were still alive. In April 1977, Joe was quoted in an article in the Dayton Daily News saying: “The university covered it up. They wouldn’t give you any answers.” On Joe’s centennial birthday, I thought it would be fitting to post some additional evidence that supports his cover-up theory.

For a long, long while, I used to believe that Miami University’s administrators and the Oxford PD didn’t have the slightest notion of what happened to Ron Tammen in the days following his disappearance. When they were quoted in the press bemoaning the lack of clues while actively ignoring, you know, actual clues, I just figured they were letting their inexperience show through. They were new at this, you guys. Cut ‘em some slack. 

But then, as I discussed in my post “Proof of a cover-up,” it started appearing as if university administrators were purposely withholding key details. First and foremost: No one seemed to want the psychology book that was open on Tammen’s desk to make its way into a news article. Gilson Wright, the Miami journalism professor who also worked as a stringer for area papers, was how they conveniently managed to keep that info away from the interested public. Wright never mentioned the word psychology in any of his stories—ever—even though he would have known about the open textbook’s subject matter at the very latest by April 1954, when Joe Cella, of the Hamilton Journal News, introduced that detail into his one-year anniversary article. In the first 23 years of Tammen coverage, only two reporters—Cella and Murray Seeger, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer—ever mentioned the psychology book in their articles.

That discovery has led me to ask: what else was the university doing to keep details of the case away from the press, and—OK, I’ll say it—namely one member of the press? Although Seeger wrote a nice piece in 1956, he was primarily a political reporter for the Plain Dealer before moving on to bigger outlets, and he wasn’t keeping up with the story like Cella was. Cella was the only non-university-paid reporter who was following the story from the very beginning until 1976, and quite probably until his death in 1980. 

Was the university doing anything to keep certain information out of Cella’s hands? For sure.

Last year, before Covid-19 reared its spikey little head, I was spending some time in Miami University’s Archives, and found something I didn’t recall seeing there before. Or, if I had seen it before, it didn’t seem nearly as significant as it does now. Tucked among a hodgepodge of Tammen-related news and magazine articles is an undated, unsourced, one-page sheet that appears innocent enough—a dishy “story behind the story” that someone had typed up on a computer. The font looks like Times New Roman and it was printed on a laser printer. The printer paper looks bright white, not yellowed with age. For these and a few other reasons, which I’ll be getting to in a moment, it appears to have been written fairly recently—long after I graduated from Miami in 1980 and certainly post-Cella. It could have been produced in the last 20 years, or perhaps even more recently than that. It’s too hard to tell.

The write-up has to do with an interview that was conducted with someone who worked for Carl Knox at the time that Ron Tammen disappeared. She was his secretary—that was her official job title—though the write-up refers to her as the “Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox.” (That’s another clue that the write-up was more recent: over the decades, the terms administrative assistant or administrative professional replaced the word secretary, with the professional association making the change only roughly 20 years ago, in the late 1990s and 2000.) 

This memo on an unrelated topic was signed by “AD,” who was employed as Carl Knox’s secretary at the time of Ron Tammen’s disappearance. I won’t be identifying her by name on this blog site.

A sad, albeit surprising aspect of this story is that this person passed away only this year. What I’m driving at here is that it appears that someone who’d worked closely with Carl Knox when Ronald Tammen disappeared was interviewed by someone from the university relatively recently in my estimation, though I don’t know when or by whom. In Tammen world, this was the “get” of all gets. It would have been the closest thing to talking to Carl himself. 

I’m not going to share the name of the assistant on this blog site out of respect for the family, who couldn’t recall ever hearing their mother comment on the Tammen case. But I will include the details that this person shared during her interview, which were typed up in bulleted format. The document reads as follows, with the only difference being that I’ve substituted “AD” (short for assistant to the dean) for the woman’s name:

—Beginning—

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ON RON TAMMEN, Jr.

From an interview with AD, Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox, at the time of Tammen’s disappearance on April 19, 1953

  • At the time, Hueston Woods held a work-camp for prisoners who were about to be released; they worked at clearing away brush from the future site of the lake. These prisoners assisted in the search for Ron Tammen.
  • AD’s office was across the hall from Dean Knox’s, with a bench across from her desk. After the disappearance, news reporters would sit on this bench awaiting any new information. On one occasion, AD called across the hall to Dean Knox that he had a telephone call from New York. Although the call had nothing to do with Ron Tammen, the reporters assumed it did, and this is how the rumor started that Tammen had been found in New York.
  • As a result of the false New York story (above), a buzzer was installed on AD’s desk so she could notify Dean Knox of his calls without calling out across the hall for the reporters to hear. She was also given a list of words that she should not say aloud in front of reporters.
  • After Fisher Hall was demolished in 1978, the wells and cisterns under the building were searched, since they had not been easy to search at the time of the disappearance. No signs of Ron Tammen, Jr. were found.

—End—

Before I begin dissecting the summary, please understand that I don’t think AD was in on every single convo surrounding the university’s investigation. Rather, in my view, her comments reflect what Dean Knox and perhaps others would have said to her. That’s what I’m commenting on—the words and actions of AD’s superiors based on her personal account. I’ll also add that the above summary is only someone’s interpretation of what she said during the interview. Unless we have the original transcript or recording, we can’t be sure that whoever wrote these notes did so with 100% accuracy. Plus, they may have left out some important details. 

OK, let’s get to it:

1). The date of the interview 

The author decided not to add his or her name to the summary, which is aggravating enough for someone like me who likes to contact people who know things about the Tammen case. But it would have been really helpful if they had thought to date it—either typed it in or scribbled it at the top to let us all know when it was written, and in turn, roughly when AD was interviewed. Instead, the first line is so confusing that it takes a couple reads to realize that they’re saying she was the “Assistant to the Dean of Men, Carl Knox, at the time of Tammen’s disappearance,” as opposed to being interviewed at that time, as one Miami staff member had speculated when I’d inquired about it. Based on the evidence I’ve described plus what I’m about to discuss—particularly regarding bullet #3 above—I’ve concluded that it’s a poorly worded phrase, and there’s simply no way the interview happened in 1953. It was later. We just don’t know how much later. I don’t want to get all conspiracy theory–minded on you this early in my blog post, but I mean…did they MEAN to throw us off by not dating it?

Credit: Photo by Eric Rothermel on Unsplash

2). The work-camp prisoners

Yeah, yawn, we already knew about the prisoners. Good for them. Moving on.

Hueston Woods State Park
Credit: Ohio Department of Natural Resources Flickr account

3). The New York rumor

A couple weeks after Ron Tammen disappeared, a rumor had spread across campus about Tammen being spotted in New York. I’ve tried like crazy to find out what the rumor was—it was one of my standby questions for anyone I interviewed who was on campus at the time. No one with whom I spoke could recall the rumor. In fact the only other evidence I’ve had of the rumor was a May 8, 1953, editorial in the Miami Student (p. 2, top left) that stated that a rumor had been circulating that “…Tammen had been located, under conditions that were defamatory to his character.” But according to the same editorial, the rumor was started by an “enterprising student,” and the purpose was to see how fast it would spread. Other than that editorial, which chastised fellow students for disseminating the rumor in the first place (its title was “Must Tongues Wag”), no reporter ever mentioned the New York rumor in an article—not Joe Cella, not Gilson Wright, not even a student reporter. 

As we all know, there was another possible New York connection to the Tammen story, though this one came several months later, in August 1953. Could housing official H.H. Stephenson’s potential Ron sighting in Wellsville, NY, have been the basis behind the phone call that Carl Knox had received? Perhaps Cella or Wright or someone else was in the vicinity when the call came in, and Knox was concerned that they’d heard something that he felt shouldn’t be made public. The only person who reported that potential sighting, however, was Cella in 1976, and that article was not based on a rumor or an overheard phone call. It was based on a conversation with H.H. Stephenson, who had worked directly for Carl Knox in 1953. (His title then was director of men’s housing and student employment.)

Credit: Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

4). The bench across from her desk

The summary says that reporters—plural—used to sit on a bench across from AD’s desk waiting for updates. That’s rather hard to imagine, given the fact that there were so few clues to begin with and only two newspaper reporters who were covering the story from the beginning: Gilson Wright and Joe Cella. Wright, being a university employee, seemed to have an inside track with Carl Knox. Why would he have to sit on the bench waiting for updates? Besides, with all the university jobs he was juggling—teaching courses, advising student journalists, heading up the news bureau—he had other places to be. 

Perhaps a Miami Student reporter had been occupying the bench. But students have classes to attend, and, moreover, there were no bylined Miami Student articles during the spring of 1953. Also, the early Student articles were similar to the articles Wright was submitting to area newspapers, which has led me to infer that Wright authored those as well. 

That leaves Joe Cella, although I’m sure Joe was too busy to plant himself outside of Carl Knox’s office for hours on end. Besides, Joe’s best sources seemed to be the students and staff members who were closest to the action as opposed to seated behind a desk in Benton Hall.

As far as radio and TV coverage, there likely was some of that too, especially early on, though any trace of what was broadcast over the airwaves is gone. However, their reporting would have probably been bare-bones, with most of their info coming from Miami’s news bureau, courtesy of Gilson Wright and company. In short, I can’t imagine they’d be camped out either.

My hunch is that whoever was seated there when the New York phone call came in had set up an interview with Knox and was merely waiting…if a reporter was sitting there at all. More on that theory in a second. 

5). The buzzer on her desk

Regardless of who was calling from New York and for what purpose, university administrators had clearly been shaken up about it—so much so that they decided to install a buzzer on AD’s desk. 

For what it’s worth, the buzzer technology wouldn’t have been a huge technological feat in those days, according to two electrical engineers who weighed in after I put out a call for help on Facebook. (Thanks, Chris and Travis!) People have been ringing doorbells on a widespread basis since the early 1900s, which would basically accomplish the same thing—pressing a button and having it ring, or buzz, in another room with the aid of an electrical wire. (A similar concept is turning lights on and off using a button or toggle switch, connected to a light source by an electrical wire.) For this reason, AD’s buzzer would have been fairly simple for someone with that skill set to put together. 

Credit: Cropped image from LEEROY Agency from Pixabay

6). More on the bench, the buzzer, and the rumor

But seriously, you guys, how many reporters could there have been sitting on AD’s bench, day in and day out, and were they really creating such havoc around the office that it warranted instituting a secret buzzer system? 

To be sure, a missing student is a very big deal. But installing a secret desk buzzer seems to be more like the act of someone who wants to play spy or top-secret government insider. Who were they protecting with their desk buzzer? Not Ron. Not the Tammen family. And honestly, so what if someone from the press overheard that Carl Knox had received a call from New York. No reporter worth his or her stripes would file a story based on that meager amount of info. They’d first ask Knox if the call pertained to Tammen, Knox would say no, and the potential misinformation would be squelched then and there, amIright?

I’m going to propose a different scenario: AD may have been told by Knox that her new buzzer system was because of reporters spreading the New York rumor—which, again, never made its way into newspapers—but I think it went beyond that. Remember that Carl Knox had jotted in his notes the name “Prof. Switzer,” Ron’s psychology professor who I believe was working for the CIA at the time Tammen disappeared. Switzer had even told one of my sources that he had indeed spoken with investigators at that time as well. What if Switzer had informed Carl Knox that Tammen’s disappearance involved a classified government program that’s important for protecting the nation’s security? Knox might have decided that a buzzer system would be a simple, effective way to do his patriotic duty. Incoming phone calls—from New York, D.C., or wherever—would be handled with utmost secrecy, no matter who happened to be standing nearby.

7). The list of words that she should not say aloud in front of reporters

OH. MY. LORD. Talk about burying a lede—this one got pushed to the tail end of bullet #3, after the work-camp prisoners but before the cisterns and wells.

Do you have any idea what I would give to know the words AD was instructed not to say in front of reporters? A lot. I would give a lot. Was one of the words “Switzer”? “Psychology”? “Hypnosis”? Or better yet “Post-hypnotic suggestion”? Or how about “MKULTRA” or “Project ARTICHOKE”? I mean, did AD’s interviewer think to ask the obvious follow-up question: What words were on the list? And if they did ask that question, why would they leave the most important part out of their summary page? Why indeed.

You guys, I’ve worked in several press offices in my career, and have fielded calls on topics that were considered political hot potatoes in their day. But I can’t think of a single time when I was instructed not to say certain words. Were they trying to protect Ron’s reputation? To avoid putting the university in an embarrassing light? Would the words have steered reporters too close to a probable cause for his disappearance? Whatever the reason, if the university was prohibiting the use of certain words to prevent a reporter from learning an inconvenient but potentially significant truth, that’s a cover-up. 

Incidentally, I’m quite certain that AD would have never mentioned the forbidden words list back in 1953, when she was working for Carl Knox and the investigation was in full swing. That’s another reason that I feel that the interview was relatively recent.

One word that I’m pretty sure wasn’t on the forbidden list? Cisterns. 

8). The cisterns

Speaking of cisterns, in part one (2:47) of the two-part segment on Ron Tammen last month from WXIX (Cincinnati), we were introduced to the concept of open cisterns on Miami’s campus by a Miami University spokesperson. Cisterns are generally described as large tanks that store water, though the cistern that was shown in the news segment was built in the 1800s and looked like a large open hole leading to a bricked-in area underground. I’ll tell you here and now, I had no idea that they were considered a safety problem back then. But I’m not sure students in those days felt that way either. If you type the search term “cistern” (singular) into the Miami Student digital archive for the time period of 1900 to 2020, two articles will pop up, one from 1903 and one from September 1986. The 1986 article discusses a cistern that the university had installed under Yager Stadium to conserve water when maintaining the athletic fields. The 1903 article was about a wrongly translated Latin passage and had nothing to do with cisterns on campus. The term “cisterns” (plural) yielded an article from 2000 about brick cisterns that were discovered during the construction of a park in uptown Oxford. 

What AD said, however, was that they’d checked the wells and cisterns under Fisher Hall after the building was torn down in 1978 because they were difficult to get to. Of course, I don’t want to leave any stone unturned in my research, and that includes learning more about the university’s cisterns. Earlier this month, I emailed the spokesperson seeking background materials or a conversation on the topic, and so far, I haven’t heard back from him. I’ll keep you posted. 

9). The full interview 

Although the “Cliff Notes” version of AD’s interview is better than nothing, I really want to read the full transcript. Or better yet, I’d love to hear the recording. At the very least, I want to know when the interview was conducted and by whom so I can reach out to the interviewer for a conversation about all they remember that AD said, including, hopefully, at least one or two choice forbidden words.

I’ve reached out to senior administration officials for Miami University Libraries as well as Marketing and Communications, including the News Office, for assistance. Currently, the head of the libraries’ department that oversees Special Collections, Preservation and The University Archives is having his staff look for the source materials, though it may take a while due to Covid-19 restrictions. I’ll be touching base with them every so often for updates.

Here’s why I believe the university should still have the source materials: AD and her husband were well known, beloved figures at the university for many years. Although I still don’t know the reason behind the interview, it would make sense if someone had requested it for historical purposes. If that were the case, then tossing the original tape or transcript would be very, very strange, to put it mildly. I can’t say that that’s what happened at this point, but it’s a concern of mine.

Furthermore, as someone who believes in transparency in our public and governmental institutions, let me be transparent regarding my current thinking. In discussing the possibility of a university cover-up, I always gave the people in later administrations a pass. How could they have been privy to information that Carl Knox and his team were discussing off-the-record and in real time? If there was a cover-up, I used to think, it would have been the people who were making those judgment calls back then. Once they died, any evidence of wrongdoing would have died with them. 

However, if someone who’d been around at that time briefed someone fairly recently, filling them in on forbidden words, for example, and any other pertinent intel from 1953, and if that interview was reduced to a few tamed-down bullet points and the original source materials were discarded to prevent someone like me from finding them? Well, the cover-up would live on. Is that what’s happening? I sincerely hope not. That’s why finding the source materials is so important.

I can only imagine what the late, great Joe Cella would say to me about the possibility of an ongoing cover-up. Probably something like: “Welcome to my world.” And then he’d add, “Keep on it.”

Post-Script:

In light of the new revelations, I rewatched the 1976 documentary “The Phantom of Oxford” to listen again to what Carl Knox had to say 23 years after Tammen had disappeared. By then, Knox had moved to Boca Raton, Florida, and was serving as professor of education and vice president for student affairs at Florida Atlantic University.

In Part 1 (9:18), Knox briefly discusses Tammen having left his car behind with his bass inside, which is 100% true, but it doesn’t add anything to today’s topic. In Part 2 (2:40), he says this:

Carl Knox: In other campuses where I’ve been located, there have been disappearances, and there have been tragedies, but nothing which has sort of popped out of, no background of explanation, no way of reasonable anticipation, but just suddenly happening, and there you were with egg on your face, deep-felt concerns, and yet no answers for any part of it.

Ed Hart: And yet something tells you Ron Tammen is alive.

Carl Knox: Yes, I feel this. I feel it keenly.

Knox is believable in the interview, and his facial expressions could best be described as: deeply concerned, which is consistent with what he has to say. But, as we now know, there’s a lot of information concerning the university’s investigation that he’s chosen not to say here. Twenty-three years later, he has elected to keep his mouth shut—about open psychology books and dropped courses, about hypnosis studies, about three amnesiac Ohio youths, about Ron’s proneness to dissociation, about Dr. Switzer, about hidden buzzers and forbidden words. 

In fact, the only time Carl Knox truly opens up about the case is in his last sentence. Knowing everything he knew back then, he keenly felt that Ron was alive—in 1953 as well as in 1976. And you know what? I keenly feel it too.

Happy holidays, everyone! Comments are now open. You’re also welcome to air a grievance or two (non-political please) in honor of Festivus, which also happens to be today.

Post-Christmas Post-Script (Dec. 27, 2020)

Hi, all! I’m back. I forgot to make a point in the above post that probably appears like a gaping, cistern-sized hole and it’s been eating at me. It concerns the fourth bullet point that discusses the cisterns and wells. There I was, offering up my reasoning regarding why the interview with AD couldn’t have been conducted in 1953, and I didn’t even bring up the fact that the fourth bullet discusses how they’d searched the cisterns and wells in 1978, when they tore down Fisher Hall. Did anyone else catch that? I mean, clearly, the interview occurred after 1978.

Sorry for the oversight!

I should also add that the same university rep who felt that the interview was conducted at the time of Tammen’s disappearance said that she didn’t think the fourth bullet was related to the interview with AD. But that’s not what the document says. The document says that the additional information was from the interview. So, it occurred after 1978, but, again, I think it was much more recent than that. I’m just hoping to find someone with the institutional memory to recall when the interview took place and with whom.

Proof of a cover-up

The myriad ways Gilson Wright described Tammen’s open textbook without ever once using the word ‘psychology’

(Supplement to season 2, episode 4 of The One That Got Away)

One of the topics that Josh, Tyler, and I discuss in episode 4 of The One That Got Away, which dropped tonight, is the psychology book that was open on Ron’s desk the night he disappeared. We’d already established on this blog site that Joe Cella was the first reporter to reveal that it was a psychology book, and he did so in his one-year anniversary article, published in the Hamilton Journal News on April 22, 1954. Later still, 23 years after Tammen disappeared, we learned that the book was opened to “Habits,” thanks again to the intrepid Joe Cella, on April 18, 1976.

In preparing for the podcast, I thought it might be fun to document all the ways that book was mentioned in the press during the 1953-1976 time period by the two reporters who covered the case the longest, along with one other major reporter. I wanted to find out how that uber dull yet utterly intriguing psychology book became part of the Tammen narrative.

Well. 

Below is a chart I created of news articles about the Tammen disappearance that mention the textbook on Ron Tammen’s desk. The three primary reporters were: Joe Cella, a reporter for the Hamilton Journal News who followed the case for more than 20 years; Murray Seeger, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who wrote one well-researched article in 1956; and Gilson Wright, a journalism professor at Miami, who also was a freelance stringer/correspondent for area papers, and a long-time adviser to student journalists at the Miami Student. Because he was a Miami employee, Wright had a conflict of interest when reporting on the Tammen case in area papers, and it shows.

Click on chart for a closer view.
Click on chart for a closer view.

As you can see, only Cella and Seeger refer to the book on Tammen’s desk as his psychology book, as highlighted in red. At no time—ever, in his entire reporting career—does Gilson Wright refer to the book as a psychology book. (He retired from Miami in 1970, but kept writing for area newspapers on occasion.) Even when he was aware of Cella’s reveal in April 1954, Wright continued to refer to it as a book or books, or a textbook or textbooks. And if the university’s search algorithm didn’t let me down, it wasn’t until 1988—35 years after Tammen disappeared and 18 years after Wright had retired—that a reporter for the Miami Student, Julie Shaw, finally described the book as a psychology textbook. 

Gilson Wright photo
joe cella hamilton journal-news early 1950s_1 copy
Seeger

left to right: Gilson Wright, Joe Cella, and Murray Seeger 

This is tangible evidence that Gilson Wright was being used by the university to hide Ron’s psychology textbook from the curious public. Officials likely didn’t want people to find out that Ron was no longer enrolled in his psychology course, and to question why the book would be there. I believe they were attempting to steer reporters and others away from the psychology department because of their hypnosis activities at that time, which could implicate them in his disappearance. If Tammen’s psych book was opened to the page I think it was opened to, that would have worried them even more.

The pages I believe Ron’s psychology book was opened to when he disappeared. Note the reference to “Post-hypnotic suggestion” on page 295. For a full description, go to Facebook.com/agmihtf, and watch the video from April 19, 2018.

How Joe Cella obtained the information about the textbook, I don’t know. He may have had inside sources. Maybe Chuck Findlay told him. Remember that Cella’s April 22, 1954, article also included photographs of Tammen’s room after he disappeared, which also showed the open book on Tammen’s desk. [Article is provided with the permission of the Hamilton Journal-News and Cox Media Group Ohio.] From what I can tell, those were the first and last times those photos were ever published. I’m also not sure how Cella discovered the information about “Habits,” 23 years after Tammen disappeared. My guess is that he may have obtained it from Carl Knox. By then, Knox had moved to Florida, and had agreed to appear in The Phantom of Oxford with Cella in 1976. Perhaps Knox told Cella about the book pages then because he didn’t think it would cause a ruckus by that time.

I’ve pointed to two other examples in which Gilson Wright would report one thing and then never report it again. On June 29, 1953, he reported in the Hamilton Journal News that the visitor’s time of arrival at Mrs. Spivey’s house, according to Mrs. Spivey, was “about 11 o’clock,” and then referred to it as “about midnight” from that point on. Also, it was Wright who wrote the April 26, 1953, article about a phone call to Tammen’s parents from the parents of three students who had memory loss and wandered away but who later returned. That disclosure was reported once and then quickly forgotten, almost as if Wright himself had had a sudden attack of amnesia.

The article by Wright that I believe was in The Cincinnati Enquirer. (See second column, 2nd full paragraph.)

Although Wright probably had the best of intentions in his reporting at the start, it appears as if someone at the university sat him down and gave him his marching orders. His cookie-cutter articles on the Tammen case year after year with no new revelations are indicative of a man living within boundaries. It was as if he was doing everything in his power not to mention that psych book, because, by God, he never did, even after Cella let the cat out of the bag.

In an April 11, 1977, article for the Dayton Daily News, Cella is quoted as saying: “The university covered it up. They wouldn’t give you any answers.”

Damn, Joe—I do believe you’re right, and the above chart helps prove it. If Gilson Wright and his superiors were going to these lengths to hide Ron’s psychology textbook from public view, then they obviously felt that it was important to the case. 

I don’t know about you, but this tells me that we’re on the right track.

My theory on Ron Tammen’s exact location the moment he disappeared, and other thoughts*

(Supplement to season 2, episode 3 of The One That Got Away)

*This post was formerly titled “More thoughts on two ignored clues,” but that was really boring, so I changed it. The URL remains the same, however.

I’m not gonna lie—podcasting has been fun. Not only is it helping me cope with my covid-fueled despair in a meaningful and productive way, but it inspires me to revisit some of the old blog posts and think new thoughts in light of findings that came out a little later in the process. (Please note: I won’t be producing a supplemental blog post for every podcast episode; I’ll only create a new post if we cover territory there that I haven’t discussed here.) 

What I’m about to share is discussed in season 2, episode 3 of the podcast The One That Got Away, which I encourage you to listen to when you have a few idle minutes on your hands. Josh and Tyler are delightful human beings and they’re becoming quite the avid Tammen fans as well. But if you prefer to get your Tammen news by way of written words on a screen, no problem. I love that you like to read. Here are my latest ruminations regarding two questions that you may have already wondered about but were too polite to ask. I’m also going to share some brand new info that was released by Josh and Tyler during episode 3.

Question 1: Why did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story so quickly?

Let’s talk about those two extra hours we discovered in Ron’s timeline. Remember when Paul (not his real name) swore up and down that he and a guy named Chip Anderson (real name, but deceased) walked home with Ron after song practice on the night of April 19, and that they didn’t arrive until around 10:30 p.m.? And remember how university reps and the police interviewed them but completely ignored their story, instead telling everyone that Ron disappeared from his room at around 8:30 p.m.?

In a subsequent post, I discussed my theory of why investigators embraced Mrs. Spivey’s story so wholeheartedly. I even demonstrated—using my sweet ride, a 2011 Mazda 3, and the calculator on my phone—how Ron could have feasibly (though improbably) ended up in Seven Mile on foot under the 8:30 scenario, but most definitely not the 10:30 p.m. scenario. If he left at 10:30, and if it was Ron Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door, someone would have had to drive him there, which would complicate matters in ways investigators probably didn’t wish to imagine.

But Mrs. Spivey didn’t come forward until June. Why then did investigators choose to dismiss Paul’s and Chip’s story right off the bat?

I think the answer has to do with their favorite theory as to how Tammen disappeared. Very early in the investigation, by Friday, April 24, the university had declared in several Miami Valley and Cleveland papers that Ronald Tammen probably had amnesia. “Officials believe that he might have suffered an attack of amnesia,” an article in the Hamilton Journal News read. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote: “University officials said Tammen might be suffering from amnesia as he took no clothing or personal articles with him.” (Neither article contained a byline, but my guess is that they were penned by Gilson Wright, since he wrote for both papers.) At least the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed some healthy journalistic skepticism about the university’s conclusion. It read “The dean [Carl Knox] believed the youth might have suffered an attack of amnesia, but had nothing to back that theory.”

So, amnesia. Now let’s consider how investigators would have tried to explain their amnesia theory under both estimated times of departure. Under the 8:30 p.m. scenario, Ron would have developed his amnesia at some point while he was in his dorm room, after he’d changed his sheets. Maybe it had hit him while he was studying at his desk. No one could possibly know the reason, because no one was there. He was alone, so anything was possible. In their view, he just, you know, cracked.

Under the 10:30 p.m. scenario, Ron had walked back to the dorms with Paul and Chip. He dropped them both off at Symmes Hall, and then headed toward Fisher Hall. But Ron never made it back to his room in Fisher. How do we know that? We know it because that’s roughly when his roommate, Chuck Findlay, had returned from his weekend in Dayton. Chuck never saw Ron.

Therefore, and this is crucial: Ron would have been struck by amnesia at some point between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall.

Below is a map that shows you how close the two buildings were to one another, circled in red. Symmes is building #37, and Fisher is building #36. In my driving video on Ron’s possible trip to Seven Mile, that’s Symmes Hall on the left, immediately after I exited the circular driveway that’s now in front of Marcum Hotel and Conference Center. That driveway used to be in front of Fisher. You guys…Symmes and Fisher are super close.

Which scenario do you think investigators gravitated toward? While both are a little tough to swallow, wouldn’t it be easier to explain the one in which Ron went wandering off when no one was watching as opposed to walking with two people and then forgetting who he was immediately afterward? Exactly. Scenario A was the one they chose: 8:30ish. This brings me to the second question.

1952-53 map of Miami marked up
1952-53 map of Miami University; circled in red is Fisher Hall (Bldg #36) and Symmes Hall (Bldg #37); Click on map for closer view.

Symmes Hall from video
Symmes Hall, as taken in my car trip from Marcum Conference Center to Mrs. Spivey’s home. Note that this screen shot is 41 seconds into the video. You can watch as I drive on the circular driveway, then pass Symmes in the video on YouTube.

Question 2: Why did no one follow up on the clue regarding the woman in the car?

In July 2017, I learned about an astonishing lead. I learned that Ron had reportedly been spotted sitting in a car with a woman from Hamilton late on April 19 and, after about 45 minutes or so, the two had driven away. I learned this after I’d met with a former member of the Oxford police force—someone who had actually worked for police chief Oscar Decker in 1953, when Tammen disappeared. In my blog post, I refer to this man as Ralph Smith, but that was just a pseudonym. I was keeping his identity secret.

Until now.

In preparing for the podcast, I checked online to see if my source was still alive, and unfortunately, I found his very brief obituary. My source’s true name was Logan Corbin, and he passed away at the age of 97 on December 16, 2017, five months after our meeting. I’m posting his photo below as well as a link to an audio clip of him telling me about the purported woman in the car.

Logan Corbin
Logan Corbin, formerly with the Oxford Police Department, 1952-1959; photo taken in July 2017

Logan was African American. In those days, it was virtually unheard of for a rural, small-town, predominantly white community such as Oxford to hire a Black cop, and, for that reason, I give the city credit for taking a step toward progress in the early-1950s. Nevertheless, racism was rampant there, and Logan endured daily doses of slurs from his fellow officers, sometimes over the police radio. Eventually, he decided to leave that position for another job, though he remained with the Oxford PD for seven years, from 1952 to 1959.

When you listen to Logan tell the story, one of the points he keeps repeating is that the lead concerning the woman in the car was never checked out. To that I say, WTfreakinF, Oscar Decker?! Logan wasn’t sure how the police had found out about it—”word just got out,” he’d told me. Granted, it would have taken some detective work to follow the lead. They didn’t know the woman’s name, the make or model of her car, its color, the exact time she drove away, any of that. But it would have been way easier to check out those details then, when all the major players were still alive and well, and walking around that small section of campus, as opposed to six decades later. The cops could have publicized the possible sighting far and wide, asking anyone with information to come forward. For some reason, they chose not to.

If, as I believe, Ron Tammen disappeared from somewhere between Symmes Hall and Fisher Hall, that circular driveway between the two buildings could have been ground zero to where it all happened.

So, again I ask, why wouldn’t investigators follow the one lead that places Tammen in that exact location—in a car, in the driveway between Symmes and Fisher Halls? For some reason, investigators felt the need to steer everyone in a different direction.