A commenter recently asked about Joe Cella’s 1976 revelation that, on the Friday night before Tammen disappeared, he’d stopped by the home of Glenn Dennison to pay his car insurance. She was wondering why Ron would show up at his insurance agent’s house on a Friday night to pay his premium. Who does that, right?
It’s a really good question. There were other aspects to that visit that were curious too—aspects that I haven’t discussed with you yet. So let’s talk about them now.
According to Cella’s April 18, 1976, Hamilton Journal News article, “Mrs. Dennison, who had never reported the visit to authorities, recalled Tammen came to their home Friday, April 17, 1953, about 8 p.m. to pay his car insurance premium.” Cella verified that the payment—totaling $17.45—had been made on that date through old records produced by Mrs. Dennison, who assisted her husband with his insurance business.
Dennison’s house, located on Contreras Road, is out beyond where the Taco Bell and LaRosa’s Pizza is now, and a couple miles from where Fisher Hall once stood. Also, Dennison’s business was out of his home, so it wasn’t all that weird that Tammen would show up at the house. A 1960 ad in the phone book lists his business address at Contreras Road, though it doesn’t include the house number.
What was weird was the time—8 p.m. on a Friday. Don’t most college students generally have more fun places to be on Friday nights? Why did Ron think it was so important to pay his premium then, when it wasn’t even due until April 24? He was a week early.
Here are the two things I haven’t shared with you about that visit and perhaps why Tammen might have ended up at the Dennison home at that time:
Everett Patten, the chair of Miami’s psychology department, lived on Contreras Road too. In the 1952-53 Miami Directory, his address is listed as R.R. 1, short for Rural Route 1, which tells us nothing about where he actually lived. In 1956, the Oxford telephone book listed Patten at R.D. 1, which I believe means Rural Delivery 1, and again, tells us nothing about his location. Thankfully, the 1958 Oxford phone book specified an actual house number. (By the way, if you’re thinking that he moved, I don’t think so. That was the same year in which St. Clair Switzer’s house was given a number, from his former designation of R.D. 2.)
So Everett Patten lived on the 6400 block of Contreras Road and Glenn Dennison lived and worked on the 6100 block of Contreras Road—less than a mile apart. It’s actually .4 miles.
Let’s imagine that Ron is at Dr. Patten’s house that night for some reason. We’ve already established that Patten seemed to know a lot about Ron—like Ron having dissociation in his background, for example—and we also know that the psychology department was hypnotizing students at that time. It would make a lot of sense for them to conduct their hypnosis sessions off campus, to avoid drawing attention. If Ron’s at Patten’s home on a Friday night for a hypnosis session, wouldn’t it make sense for him to stop off at Glenn Dennison’s house to pay his car insurance as long as he’s in the neighborhood? Whether coming or going, it would have been on the way.
The second thing I need to tell you is that the Campus Owls had a gig that night. According to the newspaper the Palladium Item of Richmond, IN, the Campus Owls played that Friday night from 8 to 11:30 p.m. at Short High School in Liberty, IN, which is about a 20-minute drive from Oxford.
In Cella’s article, Mrs. Dennison says, “He stayed about a half hour, talking about the Campus Owls in which he played and talked about other things.”
Of course, the times may be a little off, since Mrs. Dennison was recalling events from 23 years prior, however it still seems strange to me that Tammen would be so chatty on a night he was supposed to be in Indiana—at 8 p.m. My guess is that he didn’t go at all. And why would Ron, a guy who was forever looking for ways to earn money, choose not to go to a gig to make some additional cash?
Maybe he had something else to do that would also bring in money—something that would soon take precedence over everything else.
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 Dealerbefore 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.)
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:
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.
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?
2). The work-camp prisoners
Yeah, yawn, we already knew about the prisoners. Good for them. Moving on.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.