An ode to Joe on his 98th birthday

joe cella hamilton journal-news early 1950s_1 copy
Joe Cella as a reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News in the early 1950s.

December 23, 2018

If there is one name that’s come to be closely associated with the Ronald Tammen story, it would be that of Joe Cella. Cella was the reporter for the Hamilton Journal-News who’d written some of the more substantive pieces about Tammen’s disappearance. So obsessed was he about the case that he carried Tammen’s photo around with him in his wallet for decades—a photo that Richard Tammen had given him. If you’ve been following this blog for even a short while, you probably already know that the amount of respect I have for him is pretty much off the charts. He’s my idol. Maybe even a borderline crush.

Joseph Anthony Cella was born on this day in 1920 in Bisaccia, Italy, an ancient town in the southern part of the boot, approximately where the ankle would be if the boot was for real. He and his parents immigrated to the U.S. before he was one year of age and settled in Hamilton, Ohio, which is where he lived for most of his life. Sadly, he didn’t live long by today’s standards, passing away during the summer of 1980 at the age of 59, right after I graduated from college. (If only I’d thought to give him a call to discuss the Tammen case when I was a student at Miami. I’m still kicking myself for that missed opportunity.) Nevertheless, his impact was significant.

My admiration for Cella grew as I studied every line of every article he wrote on Ronald Tammen. As the years rolled by, he didn’t give up on Tammen. He didn’t recycle and rehash the same-old, same-old for anniversary stories that he wrote. And he didn’t settle for what university officials or the Oxford police were telling him. Sure, he’d write down whatever information they were doling out, but he had other sources too. Even 23 years after the fact, he was unearthing new information, much of which investigators had known but had opted to keep from the public.

Thanks to Cella, we learned:

  • That “a psychology book which Ronald was reported to have been reading was found on his desk.” (HJN, 4-22-1954)
  • That the psychology book on Ron’s desk had been opened to “Habits.” (HJN, 4-18-1976)
  • That Ron had stopped in at the office of Garret Boone, M.D., in Hamilton, OH, to have his blood typed on November 19, 1952, five months before Ron disappeared. Cella also revealed that Boone felt that he’d been given the “brush-off” by university officials, who, according to Boone, “didn’t want to discuss the case” when he came forward with his information. (HJN, 4-23-1973)
  • That on Friday, April 17, the weekend of his disappearance, Ron had stopped by the home of Glenn Dennison on Contreras Road at around 8:00 p.m. to pay his car insurance. They talked a little about the Campus Owls, but then he was on his way. (HJN, 4-18-1976)
  • That H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who’d given Ron his permit to have a car on campus, thought he’d seen Ron with a group of young men in a restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on August 5, 1953. (HJN, 4-18-1976)

At least three of those findings, and possibly four, factor prominently in the solution of this case, I believe.

“He was always a skeptic,” said one of his sons. “And the reporter that he was, he was always trying to find the answer to the truth…He was always digging to find the answer. It was one of those things where he didn’t really trust anything completely. He was going to find out for himself definitively what the answer was. He did that with a number of stories, and this one, in particular, which lasted, you know, to the day he died.”

“He’s out there,” he used to say about Tammen.

joe cella hamilton journal-news early 1950s
Joe Cella looking out the window of the Hamilton Journal-News with the clock tower of the Butler County Courthouse in the background.

Like Tammen, Cella had movie-star looks. His wife June, who met Joe when he was an usher at the Paramount Theater in Hamilton, often said that he reminded her of Tyrone Power, the dashing leading man of Zorro fame who happened to be from nearby Cincinnati. After serving in WWII, Cella thought he might give Hollywood a try, but it didn’t pan out for him. He and June returned to Hamilton where they would raise a family and Joe would work the rest of his days in news reporting and communications.

joe cella Paramount Theater
Young Joe as an usher at the Paramount Theater, Hamilton, Ohio.

He probably was feeling let down about this turn of events, but I consider it to be a good thing. Hollywood has enough beautiful people. Joe Cella had a gift for journalism. He had an inquisitive mind and a thirst for truth, which, in my book, the world can always use more of.

According to his obituary, Cella’s first job in journalism was with the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked for five years, before moving on to various stints around Cincinnati. These included TV Guide magazine (regional editor), Crosley Broadcasting Corporation (promotion and publicity director), and Avco Broadcasting and WLW radio and television (public relations director). He was an avid golfer and, in 1962, he worked alongside Bob Hope to help organize an annual celebrity golf tournament at a Cincinnati country club, with proceeds benefiting a local charity. He also opened his own advertising and public relations firm.

joe cella bob hope wlw-tv abt 1963
Cella was with TV station WLWT when he worked on a celebrity golf tournament with Bob Hope.

In 1966, Cella rejoined the Hamilton Journal-News, where he worked as a reporter for the next decade, and, as we now know, where he churned out some of his best work on the Tammen case. (I sometimes wondered why I hadn’t seen anything from him on Tammen between 1954 and 1973, and now I know the answer. For much of that time, he was in PR and hanging with the likes of Bob Hope!) Cella received several accolades for the reporting he’d done on other topics during this period. He received two awards from the Associated Press of Ohio—one for his story about Robert Hatton, a young man from Hamilton who could have easily requested a medical deferment from the Vietnam War, but who, instead, fought and died there, and the other for his coverage of the discovery of an unidentified woman’s body in an industrial sludge pit near Hamilton. His third award was from the American Bar Association for his coverage of a mass murder on Easter in 1975 by James Ruppert.

In 1976, Cella assisted with the documentary “The Phantom of Oxford,” produced by WLWD-TV2, in Dayton, which told the story of Ronald Tammen’s disappearance and included on-camera interviews of some of the major players. I’m sure that documentary, for which its producers received regional Emmy Awards, would have never happened without Cella’s zealousness for keeping the case alive, knowledge of every last detail of the story, and well-worn Rolodex.

That same year, Cella stepped down from his job with the Journal-News to run for Butler County commissioner. His platform was to provide “better service to the public” and he proposed to accomplish this through his expertise in communications and public relations. He was a big believer in improving a citizen’s accessibility to the people in charge and having those people in charge engage in a lot less talking and a lot more listening. He won the Democratic primary but, in the main election, he lost to a more seasoned politician named Donald Schirmer, which was devastating for him. I have no idea how Schirmer fared at the job, but I know that Cella would have poured every ounce of himself into it.

Not long afterward, Cella’s health began to decline. He was in and out of the hospital with gastrointestinal issues, which became an ongoing burden for him. Still, he went back to reporting, this time with the Hamilton Sun. On August 13, 1980, while he was covering a Hamilton City Council meeting, Cella slumped over in his chair, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack later that night.

“He died doing what he loved,” his son told me.

Some additional thoughts on Joe Cella in the words of one of his sons:

I guess I wanted to fill in a bit more about my father. I mentioned he was a quiet, gentle person. This is something my girlfriend, now wife, had said she noticed and which in turn, attracted her to me more! He was the opposite of the male Italian head of household stereotype, much different from his father.

He was proud of his Italian heritage and was bilingual. My brothers and I all gravitated to him and his side of the family more because they were a different kind of people from most everyone else in our town. It made us feel kind of special, I guess you’d say.

My father was, as I had said, always interested in finding answers. If something happened, he wanted to know why it happened. He had run for county commissioner back in ’76 and lost pretty badly to an experienced politician. He was in disbelief when the results came in and he kept trying to find out how and why he lost, going over the printouts. I think he took it personally. I had a feeling, though, during the campaigning that he was up against some formidable odds.

I watched him change with the times. He sold off the family station wagon in 1970 and bought two Fiat sport cars, grew his hair longer with sideburns and a moustache (I never cared for it—thought it made him look sinister). His opponent in the election was the clean-cut type. I had been at [Miami University] during some of the upheavals on campus during the Vietnam War and I remember him saying, “This isn’t right,” when comparing it to his experience in the Army Air Corps during WWII. He was against me being drafted  after finding out I had a low number (I wound up getting a 4-F medical deferment my senior year). He became more vocal politically and was influenced by the number of young kids killed in action during that war. As I mentioned, he wrote a story about one soldier who was from Hamilton and his life there. Dad received an AP award for that story.

He was a creative, artistic person, too. I have a few sketches he did of a mockup for an ad for the long gone Surf Club, a  popular jazz spot in Cincinnati where he booked talent. He was big into the jazz scene in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, maybe because he had played trumpet in a band while at Hamilton Catholic High. I recall him taking me, as a preteen, to a hole-in-the-wall jazz bar in Mt. Adams called The Blind Lemon. A trio was playing on the patio that day. I would go back there later on, whenever I could while in town. He turned me on to WNOP, a tiny AM station out of Newport, KY, that was on the air with jazz programming from sun up to dusk. Hardly any kids my age back then were listening to a station like that. His appreciation of that form of music stayed with me.

He was always wanting to be unique, I think, which is why he made several attempts to make a break from Hamilton for the bright lights, big city, but my mother was too tied to her family to move away. I was told once that he did a screen test for Warner Bros. after he came back from the War, having gone to school at Shuster Martin Drama School in Cinci. Through his job in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as publicity and promotion manager at Crosley Broadcasting, he was finally able to be around the movie and TV personalities, a crowd he had always wanted to be in.

joe cella at wlw-t cincinnati abt 1960
Cella at his PR job at WLWT.

His sudden death from a heart attack while covering a meeting in the Hamilton City Council chambers was a shock, of course, but he had been ill for several years and had been showing it. Still, losing him at age 59 was tragic for us all.

Happy birthday, Joe. Thanks to your healthy skepticism and top-notch reporting, we may finally be able to solve this mystery.

joe cella hamilton journal news abt 1954 copy
Cella at the Hamilton Journal-News, circa 1954-ish.

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A big thank you to members of the Cella family for sharing the above photos with me and for telling me stories about your dad. It’s obvious how important he was in your lives.

Happy holidays, everyone.

Why did Ron Tammen get his blood typed?

donating blood
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, Reproduction number LC-USW3- 029978-E, LOT 820

Something I’ve discovered as I’ve been researching the Ronald Tammen disappearance is that there’s never a straightforward route to a solution. Scads of rabbit holes are lying in wait between point A and point Z, and the minute you start tunneling down one of them, there will invariably be an unrelated side burrow needing to be checked out. It’s kind of like driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati and getting caught up in every roundabout and cul-de-sac along the way. It’s a road trip, and road trips are generally awesome, but who really knows when we’ll be hitting I-275, let alone the Skyline Chili at 7th and Vine?

Case in point: For the past two weeks, I’d been placing calls and sending out emails to the former residents of Fisher Hall following up on our “woman from Hamilton” lead. The conversations have been captivating, and I’m amazed by the large number of octogenarians who are able to retrieve obscure college memories on demand. (Seriously, can you recall the name of your resident assistant from your freshman year of college or reel off the number of your dorm room or your class schedule? Some of these guys honestly can.) And then, during one such conversation, another side burrow came into view: a possible clue related to Ron’s blood type test.

Remember that story? On Wednesday, November 19, 1952—five months before he disappeared—Ronald Tammen had stepped into the office of Dr. Garret J. Boone, a family physician in Hamilton, Ohio, who also happened to be the county coroner. The reason for Ron’s visit was to have his blood typed, which seemed odd to Doc Boone. It was so odd, in fact, that, when he later realized that the young man was the same person who disappeared from Miami, he dug up Ron’s medical record and contacted university officials to see if the new information might help in their investigation. But the officials weren’t interested in what Doc Boone had to say. He was angry by the “brush-off” (his word choice) he’d received, and kept that potential lead to himself until 20 years later, in 1973, when he told Hamilton Journal-News reporter Joe Cella.

Doc Boone’s account left readers scratching their heads. Why a blood type test? It’s not exactly a high-priority medical procedure that warrants a full-fledged doctor’s visit. The two most obvious reasons for having one in those days were probably: a) to donate blood or b) to take a paternity test. (I’d originally thought that blood typing was required if a person wanted to get married, but most information sources state that, back then, the required pre-wedding blood test was for detecting sexually transmitted diseases and other health issues, as opposed to determining blood type.)

So what about a paternity test? A couple years ago, I spoke with a person at the DNA Diagnostics Center, a national paternity testing laboratory and affiliate of the American Pregnancy Association. Paternity tests in the 1950s were generally conducted six months after a baby was born, for the baby’s protection. Six months prior to November 19 would have been May 19, 1952, a ballpark guess for a potential baby’s birthday. Nine months before that date—roughly the time when the alleged baby would have been conceived—is August 1951, when Ron was fresh out of high school. Considering how rarely he dated back then, I’m sure Ron would have been free and clear of any worry that he’d fathered a child.

The second possibility is that he wanted to donate blood. In 1952, the American Red Cross was fairly new to its blood program. According to the organization’s timeline, its first national blood collection program began for the military during WWII and the first collection center for civilians was established in 1948 in Rochester, N.Y. The number of collection centers mushroomed to nearly 1600 the following year. But who would make a special trip—on a Wednesday—to a doctor 14 miles away to have his blood typed for the purpose of giving blood on a future date? Normally, if a person had blood donation on his mind, he’d walk into the collection center, they’d conduct a blood type test for him, free-of-charge, and he’d donate the blood then and there. Why visit a doctor in another town who was unknown to him and who certainly charged a fee? Or, as an alternative, why not get his blood typed at the student health center on campus, again likely for free?

According to the 1973 Hamilton Journal-News article, when Doc Boone asked Ron point-blank why he needed to have his blood typed, Ron responded, “I might have to give some blood one of these days,” which always sounded made up to me. If he really meant to give blood, there wouldn’t have been a “might” or “one of these days”—he would have said, “I want to donate blood.” (Granted, we’re working with a quote that was provided 20 years later from memory, so we can’t be sure of its accuracy, but Doc Boone obviously wasn’t very sold on Ron’s excuse either.) To me, that quote sounded way too secretive. Ron was up to something, I decided, and it had nothing to do with blood donation.

And then, last week, I talked to one of Ron’s fellow residents of Fisher Hall.

As I was asking my source, let’s call him Joe, about a possible woman from Hamilton, he said he hadn’t heard any rumor about her nor could he recall ever seeing Ron with a woman. But then he described one memory that did stand out: He remembered Ron asking him one day if he would accompany him to Dayton to a facility where people were paid to donate blood. (Although we can’t know with 100 percent certainty that the facility was operated by the Red Cross, it’s true that the organization sometimes paid donors during this time period.) Joe remembers being apprehensive about it, but Ron pretty much insisted that he join him.

“It was his nature to find something exciting to do,” said Joe. “If he got an idea to do something, he’d put it into effect.”

Joe needed the money for a pending night out with a girl, so he agreed to go along. He hitchhiked with Ron to Dayton—in the snow—and remembers quite clearly thinking, “This is crazy. This is nuts.” But he looked over at Ron, and Ron seemed fine with it. Joe said it was probably December when they made their trip, which would have been a month or so after Ron’s blood type test, though it could have been a little later.

I asked Joe if he needed to make a special trip to a doctor to have his blood typed beforehand, and he said, no, they probably took care of that at the collection center—either that, or he was already aware of his blood type. Joe was O positive, just like Ron.

Ron and Joe received $25 apiece for the pint of blood they’d each donated, and then they hitchhiked back to Oxford. It was the only time Joe had joined Ron for such an excursion. Other than their trip to Dayton, they had very little contact.

“He went his way and I went my way,” Joe said.

It’s important to understand how substantial $25 was back then. Twenty-five dollars in December 1952 was roughly the equivalent of $230 today, which isn’t chicken feed. In an old Honeymooners episode that first aired in the spring of 1956, Ralph Kramden considered putting his bus driver job in jeopardy and becoming a steam iron salesman for a prospective $40 a day. “Imagine that—$40 a day!” he said to Alice. Twenty-five dollars in one afternoon probably seemed just as huge to Ron Tammen. And compared to the amount Ron earned as a Campus Owl, which was also pretty good money, $25 was a tidy sum that only required that he lie down for a short while.

“I think we got paid about $12-15 for one gig,” one of Ron’s bandmates told me in an email. “One weekend I made $40 when we played three. That was a heck of a lot better than 35 cents an hour scraping dishes in a women’s dorm.”

When Ron first heard of this amazing moneymaking opportunity, he might have felt the need to have his ducks in a row before setting off for Dayton. It would be frustrating to show up at a blood bank more than 40 miles away only to be turned back because he didn’t know his blood type. Or, maybe the collection center only paid for a certain blood type, so he’d need to know if he was eligible before he made the trip. That still doesn’t explain why he chose to visit Doc Boone’s office, but not everything going on in a 19-year-old guy’s head back then is going to make perfect sense today. Who knows—maybe he happened to be in the neighborhood. Furthermore, maybe he chose to hitchhike with Joe to Dayton—in the snow, no less—as opposed to driving his own car so that none of his earnings would be wasted on gas.

By the early 1970s, the practice of paying blood donors became controversial as the opportunity to make good money in a physically undemanding way often drew people who were down on their luck and who were at high risk for diseases such as hepatitis. It was at this time that the American Red Cross switched over to a volunteer-only system.

Could it be that, in the end, Ron Tammen had told Doc Boone the truth—that he “might have to give some blood one of these days”?

The solution to this part of the Ronald Tammen puzzle may end up being just that obvious and that irrelevant to Tammen’s disappearance…and, in the words of Joe, also a little crazy and nuts.