We’re still in wait mode regarding the two hockey tapes, which means that I’m biding my time working on other questions pertaining to the Ron Tammen mystery. In fact, just a couple days ago, as I was going through photos from my last trip to University Archives, I noticed a new detail that was screaming to be investigated.
The item had to do with something a volunteer researcher had found on the second day of our visit this past June. In a box holding Tammen-related materials are notes that had once belonged to Dr. Phillip Shriver, president emeritus of Miami University and a historian who had done so much to keep the Tammen mystery alive on Miami’s campus. The notes were typewritten on index cards in outline format, and the purpose of these cards was to provide Dr. Shriver with a scaled-down version of his renowned Miami Mysteries talk. In order to keep his talk to 50 minutes, he decided to skip over the part about H.H. (Hi) Stephenson. Nevertheless, Dr. Shriver had elected to include one important detail in line #6, and that rarely disclosed detail was the name of a hotel, which was the Adirondack Inn.
I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. So was this our answer? Was the Adirondack Inn the hotel in Wellsville, NY, where Hi Stephenson thought he saw Ron Tammen? You’re probably brimming with questions about this discovery too, which is why I’ll now be switching over to Q&A format.
Q: So, is that the answer? Did the serendipitous meet-up happen at a restaurant in an establishment called the Adirondack Inn?
Oh, there’s no way.
Q: How can you be so sure?
Several reasons. According to Manning’s Directory for May 1953, there was no hotel by that name in the village of Wellsville, NY. Or Andover. Or Belmont. Or Scio. Those are four towns in Allegany County in order of population size. Wellsville was by far the biggest town in the county and it was also a major stopping point for travelers. If you were going to stop for dinner anywhere between New York and Ohio, Wellsville would have been a choice spot.
Under the category of “Hotels,” Manning’s listed five of them, all in Wellsville, all off of route 17, which, in town, was known as Main Street:
Al-Ha-Mar Motel, 475 N. Highland Avenue (Route 17)
Brunswick Hotel, 173-177 North Main
Fassett Hotel, 55 North Main
Pickup’s Hotel, 38-40 North Main
Wellsville Hotel, 470 North Main
Therefore, one of the reasons that it couldn’t be the Adirondack Inn is that there was no such hotel in or around Wellsville. I could go on.
Q: Please do.
I’ve also looked up the terms “Adirondack Inn,” “Adirondack Hotel,” and “Hotel Adirondack” in newspapers from that era to see if anything popped up that’s close to Wellsville. The only Adirondack Inn that I was able to find was the one at Sacandaga Lake in upstate New York. It was beautiful in its heyday, and I’m sure they had a nice restaurant, but it was 4 hours and 21 minutes from Wellsville.
There’s also the Adirondack Hotel, which is in Long Lake, NY. It, too, is nice, but it was over 5 hours from Wellsville. And that sums up our options.
It’s worth pointing out that the Adirondack Inn and the Adirondack Hotel are both located in the Adirondack Mountain region, which makes so much sense. What makes less sense is for a hotel in a town near the border of Pennsylvania to be named for a mountain range that’s 325 miles away.
Q: Where do you think Dr. Shriver got the name?
These things happen innocently. Phil Shriver surely would have known Hi Stephenson. Phil had arrived in Oxford in 1965 and Hi had already been working at the university since the 1940s. Hi retired in 1977. Phil stepped down from the presidency in 1981 and retired from teaching in 1998. Hi passed away in 2006 and Phil died in 2011. So I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities for Phil to ask Hi the question that I’d always wondered if Carl Knox had asked him—“What was the name of the hotel, Hi?”
The problem is…people’s memories have a way of jumbling things up over time. It could be that Hi accidentally told Phil the wrong name. Hi and his wife Kay had been vacationing in upstate New York before driving home through Wellsville. Maybe they even stayed in the Adirondack Inn, and, when he was talking to Phil, he accidentally confused the two hotel names. Or maybe Phil had gotten the details wrong. He’d mixed up other details about Hi’s story before, as a matter of fact.
Q: Really? What makes you say that?
On another note card, Phil has written some additional details regarding Hi’s story, several of which are inaccurate. In ink, he wrote the following:
“N.B. Hi & Kay Stephenson were returning from Connecticut and stopped in Waynesboro, PA.” Above that line he wrote, “Hi recalls young man’s piercing eyes.”
From what I can determine, the “N.B.” is a Latin phrase meaning “Nota bene,” or “Note well.” He’s saying that this is important, and I can totally see Phil Shriver using that terminology to do so. The man had panache.
But the locations—Connecticut and Waynesboro, PA—don’t agree with Joe Cella’s April 18, 1976, article in the Hamilton Journal-News. Joe was quoting Hi directly in that article, so that’s the source I’m going to go with factually: that the Stephensons were vacationing in upstate New York and they dined in Wellsville on the way back. (By the way, I checked and there’s no Adirondack Inn in Waynesboro, PA, either.)
But don’t be too critical of Phil or Hi. They couldn’t instantly fact check some fuzzy detail like we do now. If the information wasn’t stored securely in their brain or a file folder somewhere, it could get muddled up or completely lost.
Q: So where does that leave us? Are you still unsure about which hotel it was?
Well, funny you should ask, because when I revisited Joe Cella’s article I noticed an additional detail that could help us further narrow things down.
Let’s listen to Joe tell the story again, paying close attention to the last paragraph:
On Aug. 5, 1953, five months after Tammen was gone, Stephenson, who was in charge, and still is, of housing assignments and campus permits at Miami University, was returning with his wife from a short vacation in upper New York State.
Stephenson recalled they stopped for the evening in Wellsville, N.Y. At dinner that night, in a hotel dining room, he said he noticed three or four men sitting a few tables away. At once he said he became aware one of the men looked exactly like Tammen. He said he knew Tammen.
“When my eyes looked toward him, I would find he was looking at me. He was sort of looking right through me. For some reason that I’ll never know, I said nothing to my wife about the fact that this young man was Ron Tammen. I was sure it was him.”
After finishing dinner, Stephenson said he and his wife walked out of the hotel onto the street. He then told his wife. At her urging, they went back inside, but the men, one of whom Stephenson thought to be Ron Tammen, were gone. There was no trace of them in the lobby or anywhere else.
Thanks to Joe’s clues, I have three criteria to narrow things down. I’d had the first two criteria for a while now. The third one is new.
The hotel had to have a restaurant that served dinners. This may seem like a no-brainer, but two of Wellsville’s five hotels weren’t serving regular meals.
The hotel had to be on the street.
The hotel had to have a lobby near its restaurant.
Regarding criterion #1: The Al-Ha-Mar Motel was a typical 1950s-style one-story motel in which all overnight guests had their own street-level entrance. They didn’t have a restaurant.
The Brunswick Hotel had a coffee shop and a bar. According to local historians, they weren’t serving meals then. So those two hotels can be ruled out.
Regarding criterion #2: The Hotel Wellsville was a stately old building about one mile north of the center of town on Main Street. It also had a restaurant. However, the hotel was set back away from the road, nestled among trees. For this reason, I don’t think it was the Hotel Wellsville.
And finally, criterion #3. The Fassett Hotel was a striking red brick building with spectacular windows. They had a dining room that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner all week as well as Sunday afternoon. And importantly, the Fassett Hotel was right on North Main Street and had a lobby that owners made use of by frequently featuring the work of local artists.
Pickup’s Hotel wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing as the Fassett, but it had a coffee shop, a cocktail lounge, and a dining room, where they served meals. It was also on North Main Street. What isn’t clear is if there was a hotel lobby near the dining area. If there was one, I don’t think it was big. A 1961 article on a fire that had broken out had said that “Principal business activity in the building centered around its restaurant on the ground floor.”
Although it’s possible that Pickup’s Hotel was where Hi Stephenson saw Ron or Ron’s look-alike, I now strongly believe that the encounter happened at the Fassett Hotel. And doesn’t it sort of fit that, given a choice between a cobbled-together medley of wood, stone, and whatever else, and an elegant building of red brick, H.H. Stephenson and Ronald Tammen, Miamians through and through, would have been drawn to the latter?
Update 10/5/2022: Before posting the above write-up, I had emailed several historians from Allegany County to see if anyone had heard of an Adirondack Inn anywhere near there. Today, I heard back from Craig Braack, Allegany County’s official historian. Craig had asked a few local “old-timers” about a possible Adirondack Inn in Allegany County and no one knew a thing about it. This is one more piece of evidence that the Adirondack Inn was not the name of the hotel where Hi Stephenson thought he saw Ron Tammen.
As most of you know, I’m a fan of Joe Cella’s. After everyone else had moved on with their lives regarding Ron Tammen’s disappearance, after they’d all shrugged their collective shoulders and resigned themselves to the notion that they’d never truly know what had happened to Tammen, Cella refused to join them. He continued working the case, steadfast and alone, until the August day in 1980 that he abruptly passed away at the young age of 59. Thirty years later, when I began my book project, I consulted Cella’s news articles for guidance. I’d hoped to pick up the story where he’d left off. I aspired to follow in his footsteps.
I’ve now come to believe that I’ve achieved my dream. Not only am I following in Joe’s footsteps, but I’m facing the same old obstructions, smokescreens, and pushback that Joe had encountered in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
What’s more, when it comes to the Tammen case, I’ve discovered that if a person employs more than the minimal amount of stick-to-itiveness in their investigation, it won’t be long before they breach the space-time continuum and go hurtling back to the days of Joe.
Here are some examples:
When I read Joe’s assertion in the Hamilton Journal-News that school officials hadn’t been cooperative, I thought “Same.”
When I saw in the Dayton Daily News that he felt that the university tried to cover up the case, I thought “Omg, SAME.”
A few weeks ago, I discovered that the Miami University Alumni Association (MUAA) had written about Tammen’s disappearance on their blog known as Slant Talk. The post had been published online a year ago on October 30, 2020. For some reason, I’d missed it back then—2020 is such a blur. But early this month, I was searching a Tammen-related topic and up it popped.
I was bemused by their lack of new information. You and I have learned way more about the Tammen case than their write-up has indicated. All they had to do was Google “Ron Tammen” and they should have been able to find my blog. If they’d reached out to me—an alum who has dedicated a sizable chunk of her life to researching the Tammen case—I would have given them a nice quote. They didn’t even write about Butler County’s well-publicized reopened investigation in 2008.
That was such a long time ago. Could that have been the reason that they chose not to highlight my work, or was there another reason for the virtual snub?
At the bottom of their blog post is a comment made by a former friend of Ron’s from Fisher Hall. I recognized his name because I’d spoken with him early in my research. I’d also spoken with his roommate. He describes his memories searching for Ron as well as students’ mysterious encounters in the Formal Gardens after Ron had disappeared. It’s a moving sentiment.
The comment box is still open, so I decided to write a comment of my own. With as many followers as I’m sure MUAA has, I thought it would be a good way to talk about my project and steer people who have an interest in the Tammen story to my website.
Here’s what I wrote.
“Hi! I’m a 1980 Miami grad who has been researching the Tammen disappearance for nearly 12 years for a book project. I’ve been blogging about it too. I’ve discovered a lot of new information. Like…did you know that the FBI had Ron Tammen’s fingerprints when he disappeared and they expunged them in 2002, 30 years earlier than normal? You can read a lot more info here: https://ronaldtammen.com. Stop by!”
The comment made by Ron’s Fisher Hall friend was posted on November 1, 2020, two days after the blog was posted. My comment, which I’d submitted on October 8, 2021, is still awaiting moderation.
Two weeks later, I wrote to MUAA to see if perhaps there was something about my comment that they weren’t happy with. I wanted to let them know that I’d be open to submitting a new comment that fell within their guidelines. Here’s my email:
I’m a 1980 graduate and recurring donor to Miami University. Recently, I noticed that, in October 2020, your blog “Slant Talk” had discussed the disappearance of Ronald Tammen from Fisher Hall (https://miamialumniblog.com/2020/10/30/ron-tammen-where-are-you/). I’ve been researching Tammen’s disappearance for nearly 12 years for a book project, and have turned up some interesting findings. I submitted a comment to Slant Talk encouraging people to come to my website to read more about that topic, but after two weeks, my comment is still awaiting moderation. Is there a problem with my comment that I should adjust? It would be wonderful if MUAA would acknowledge the work of one of its own in helping solve this mystery.
Their bounce-back email said that they receive a lot of email traffic, and they would try to respond as soon as they were able. If I needed a more immediate answer, however, they provided a number to call.
Six days later, I’d still heard nothing, so I decided to call the number today. I identified myself and asked if they’d be approving my comment. I was informed that they would not. When I asked why not, the MUAA staffer told me that they had a policy not to direct their readers to other websites. When I asked if I could resubmit my comment without the URL, she responded (and I paraphrase here), “Was that on Ronald Tammen?” “Yes,” I said. She then told me that they’d already written a couple times on Ron Tammen and had no interest in writing anything more. “Interesting,” I think I said, and I told her to keep an eye out for my blog because I’d be discussing their blog post.
“Thank you,” said she. “You bet,” said I.
The internet can be a daunting place for people like me. Compared to an organization like Miami University, I’m small and insignificant. So when MUAA posts a generic piece on Ron Tammen, it’ll trounce my stuff every time. They have way more followers plus an IT team who is busy maximizing their SEO through meta tags and alt texts and all the other stuff I’m supposed to do but I’m not very knowledgeable about.
It’s OK though. When A Good Man Is Hard to Find winds up on page one of a Google search (we’re #2!) or DuckDuckGo search (we’re #1!) on “Ronald Tammen,” you can bet that it landed there based on the content (85 posts and counting!). The search engines are confident that if you click on one of my links, you’re going to learn something about Tammen.
Does Miami University want people to ignore my blog? All signs point to yes, though I don’t get it. No one alive today on or off campus had anything to do with Tammen’s disappearance. Why doesn’t the university want to help find the solution?
If they really wanted to know the answer to the question “Ron Tammen? Where are you?” they have a funny way of showing it.
On Friday, October 26, 1973, a calendar item appeared in the Miami Student announcing a talk to be delivered Halloween night. The speaker, Joe Cella, would be presenting at 8 p.m. in the Heritage Room of Miami’s former student center, now known as the Shriver Center. His presentation had been titled “The Ronald Tammen Disappearance.” There was no need for additional verbiage explaining who Ronald Tammen was or why anyone should care—everyone already knew.
Cella was the Hamilton Journal-News reporter who’d devoted decades to investigating Ron’s disappearance from Miami University in 1953. He’d intended to solve the mystery. He dug and he dug, until, quite probably, he’d made a nuisance of himself on Miami’s campus, at least in the minds of the administrators. If it hadn’t been for Joe Cella, some of the most significant clues of the case would have remained in faded notes and eroding memory banks.
In 1973, Cella had been on a roll. Earlier that year, he’d broken the story about Garret J. Boone, a family physician and Butler County coroner who’d said that Ron had walked into his office in Hamilton on November 19, 1952. (The article erroneously says the office was on Third Street, when it was actually located at 134 North Second Street. You can step inside that very building the next time you’re in or around Hamilton. Doc Boone’s old office is now a bar that features artisanal beer and live music.)
The reason for Ron’s visit was to request that his blood type be tested. Boone said he’d never received such an odd request in his 35 years of practice, and he’d asked Tammen why he needed to have his blood typed. Tammen responded, “I might have to give some blood one of these days.” Doc Boone was able to provide documentation to Cella—a medical record that included Ron’s name, address, and the date of Ron’s visit.
Cella’s fresh lead was published on April 23, 1973, for the 20th anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance, which had likely captured the attention of students serving on Miami University’s Program Board. Someone reached out to Cella to see if he’d be willing to give a talk on campus, and Joe said “sure.” Of course, they picked Halloween for the date of his talk. That’s when students always turned their thoughts to Tammen.
I mean DAYUMMM, you guys. Who among us wouldn’t have paid hundreds to hear that talk? I would have given my eye teeth, my “J” teeth, my “K” teeth, and my “LMNOP” teeth to get a chance to hear Joe Cella riffing verbatim on the Tammen case. The Heritage Room would have been packed to the rafters that night. Joe would have been fielding student questions way past his allotted time. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Something happened in the short time interval between Friday’s printed announcement and the following Tuesday that brought Joe’s talk to a grinding halt. In the next issue of the Miami Student—October 30th—this notice was published:
Joe Cella’s presentation on the “Ronald Tammen Disappearance” which was scheduled for October 31 has been cancelled. Cella, a news staff worker on the Hamilton Journal, has not received clearance from federal authorities to release material which he has acquired concerning the case. Cella has promised to present his material as part of a Program Board event pending receipt of such clearance.
“Hmmm,” thought I, when I first read the blurb.
Let me tell you a little something about practitioners of journalism, especially journalism of the investigative variety: we don’t wait around for permission to reveal something we’ve managed to dig up. We’ll protect our sources till death if need be, and we’ll protect people’s personal information too. Also, journalists who have somehow accessed classified information that could impact our national security have often elected to withhold that information for, you know, national security’s sake. But material on Ron Tammen? That seems like fair game to me.
So who put the kibosh on Cella’s talk? I doubt that it was the students who served on the Program Board. In 1973, Watergate was front-page news and the Vietnam War still had two more years before all U.S. troops had exited Saigon. Students were wary of feds in general—plus, what student wouldn’t want to hear the inside scoop on Tammen?
What about Cella? From what I’ve learned about him over the years, I’m sure there’s no way that he would have accepted a speaking gig and then, at the last minute, said that he needed to get an “all clear” from some federal agency before he could go public with the juicy tidbit he’d managed to get his hands on. Look at it this way: Can you imagine me calling the FBI and saying, “Hey, I’ve obtained a document stating that Ron Tammen’s fingerprints were expunged due to the Privacy Act or a court order. OK if I print that on my blog? If you could send me your blessing ASAP, I’d be so grateful.” Yeah, right. If you’ll recall, I posted that discovery within 24 hours of my learning it.
Also, how would Cella have obtained whatever he obtained? It’s difficult to say, since we don’t know what he had, but someone representing a federal agency had probably given it to him. And once that happens, boom. It becomes public information. No additional permission necessary.
That leaves us with Miami University administrators. Did Miami officials cancel Cella’s talk, and if so, why would they give two hoots about what Joe would be presenting that night and whether he’d obtained prior permission from “federal authorities”?
Before I address that question, let’s refer back to Cella’s article from April 23, 1973. Not only did we learn about Doc Boone’s visit from Tammen in November 1952 but we learned something else in that article: that Doc Boone had attempted to tell Miami officials about Tammen’s visit back in 1953 but he’d been summarily rebuffed.
“I offered this information (the medical file card contents) to local authorities at the time, but it was always discounted,” the article quoted him as saying. Also, “I discussed it in the past a number of times with two or three persons associated with Miami University, but they didn’t want to discuss the case.” And this: “I feel I definitely got the brush-off.” And then: “As I said before, I offered the information but they didn’t care to listen or pursue it. So I just put the card away and forgot about it.” And finally: “Maybe this information could have been valuable then. I was upset because I was given the run-around by the school.”
Terms like brush-off and run-around aren’t the sorts of things a university likes to read about itself, and the article had indeed been noticed on Miami’s campus. Affixed to the back of the article in University Archives is a note with the letterhead of the Office of Public Information, which was under the direction of Robert T. Howard. Howard had succeeded Gilson Wright in leading Miami’s News Bureau in 1956, and in 1960, he was promoted to director of the Office of Public Information.
The quasi-mocking note says:
Who’s left for him to scold but thee and me?
Based on the letterhead, I believe the note was written by Robert T. Howard. I’ve tried to determine who Paul is, and I’ll offer up my guess here: I think Robert Howard was writing to Paul Schumacher, the director of Miami University’s Health Service. There weren’t that many Pauls in high posts at Miami in 1973-74, and it seems that it would be on topic for Howard to write to the head of the health service over a fuming physician and his evidence of an off-site doctor’s visit by Tammen.
Several months later, that little flare-up would have still been fresh in the university’s mind, particularly in the mind of the person whose primary responsibility was to show the university in the best possible light, Bob Howard. As Howard was reading the October 26th issue of the Miami Student, sipping his coffee and pondering the fall weekend ahead, he probably had a mini-meltdown when he read who’d be coming to campus on Halloween night. As head of Miami’s Public Information Office, Howard oversaw media relations for the university. Managing Joe Cella would have certainly been within his job description.
Perhaps Howard was still stinging from Cella’s article about Doc Boone and decided that he wouldn’t be welcome on campus. If so, he might have called Joe to find out what he’d be talking about and made up the excuse that he’d need to obtain federal approval first, just to introduce a roadblock. Maybe.
Or could the request for clearance from federal authorities have reflected a degree of familiarity with Tammen’s case? Maybe Howard, who’d been working in communications for the university in various capacities since 1947, knew about the federal government’s involvement in Tammen’s disappearance. If so, he would have also known that the university wouldn’t want to anger the sorts of people who I believe were pulling the strings. Perhaps Howard told Cella to seek clearance to make sure the university didn’t stray from whatever marching orders they might have been given back in 1953. If the feds say it’s OK, then it’s OK with us too, Howard might have told Cella.
I have no idea what materials Joe Cella had in his possession from the federal government concerning Tammen. Cella’s sons weren’t able to shed light on that question and his Tammen file is long gone. Likewise, when I asked them if they could recall the Halloween of 1973 when their father’s university talk had been abruptly canceled, it didn’t ring any bells with them. I also contacted former student representatives of Miami’s 1973-74 Program Board and asked if they could recall the incident. Only one person responded and that person had no recollection of the Tammen program that had been canceled.
In 1977, Cella was interviewed by a reporter for the Dayton Daily News about his search for Tammen. He didn’t mention the government materials he’d had in his possession in 1973. Instead, the article says: “Cella said that federal agencies have refused to cooperate with him or Tammen’s family.” In addition, it said that he’d attempted to obtain Tammen’s records from the Social Security Administration but was refused.
This past week, I was in Oxford again, conducting more Tammen research, and I was standing in Miami’s Athletic Hall of Fame inside Millett Hall. There, among the photos of swimmers, wrestlers, football players, basketball players, and the like was a photo of Robert T. Howard, who’d been inducted in 1989 for his role in directing sports information.
So…who do you think canceled Joe’s Halloween talk in 1973?
As for the year 2021, Happy Halloween to all who celebrate! 🎃
By now, you know that my aim is to post only truthful statements about the Ron Tammen case on this blog site. If I can’t provide supporting evidence—if the best I can do is speculate about some finding, for example—I’ll attempt to do so as transparently as possible, using the necessary qualifiers. That’s how we roll. Conversely, if I should discover I’ve jumped to a conclusion that is even the slightest bit untrue, it’s my belief that I should announce the correction loud and clear, and, if it’s significant enough, with fanfare.
So, you know how I’ve been harping on Carl Knox for writing that cryptic note regarding H.H. Stephenson? The note looks like this:
That H.H.S. note has always bothered me. Not only did Knox appear to ignore Stephenson’s possible Ron sighting when Stephenson returned from his vacay in Wellsville, NY, but it seemed as though, by only jotting down Stephenson’s initials, he didn’t want anyone else to find out about it.
Today, I’m announcing that it’s my strong belief that neither Carl Knox nor one of his assistants wrote that note in August 1953. My reason for thinking so has to do with the name that’s written above that note, on the same piece of paper. It’s the contact information for one James E. Larkins, who was then an associate professor at Wright State University. (The note erroneously says Larkins is affiliated with Wright-Patt.) I’ve blackened the phone number because I don’t know who owns it now, and, well, who needs to experience the fresh hell of having their phone number published online?
As it so happens, James (Jim) Larkins was a sophomore counselor in Fisher Hall with Ron, which is where he would have been in 1953, not teaching Spanish at Wright State. Therefore, the note had to have been written much later.
But when was it written, and why was it written, and who wrote it?
Here’s the timeline I’ve pieced together:
In November 1975, Larkins wrote a letter to Everett Lykins, who was Miami’s assistant dean of student life at that time. Although the letter is dated November 3, 1975, it’s stamped “RECEIVED” by the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs on January 12, 1976. That seems late, but maybe the holidays had something to do with it.
In the letter, Larkins relays his experience regarding Ron’s disappearance, including a wild story about being shot at while trying to chase down the strange “phantom” voice that students occasionally heard after Tammen disappeared. Larkins also mentions Joe Maneri, who was the head of Fisher Hall at the time Ron disappeared.
As luck would have it, 1976 was a busy year in Tammen world. In April 1976, Joe Cella, reporter for the Hamilton Journal News, revealed that H.H. Stephenson, a housing official who had known Ron, believed he saw him on August 5, 1953, in Wellsville, NY. People first read about Stephenson’s encounter in Cella’s news article on April 18, 1976, and then heard the story straight out of Stephenson’s mouth in the Phantom of Oxford, which aired the next night, on the 23rd anniversary of Tammen’s disappearance. [Stephenson is in Part 2, at the 04:15 mark.]
You know who else was interviewed in the documentary? Jim Larkins. [Larkins is in Part 1, at the 08:30 mark.]
Here’s what I think happened:
Jim Larkins wrote his letter, which Dean Lykins likely received in January 1976.
Around that same time, Joe Cella and Channel 2 producer Ed Hart, who were collaborating on the Phantom of Oxford, probably contacted the university seeking spokespersons to be interviewed on camera. Dean Lykins might have said, “Hey, I have this letter. We could put them in touch with Jim Larkins and Joe Maneri.”
Someone then pulled together the contact info for both Larkins and Maneri, who worked at the Columbus Technical Institute at that time. This seems like a no-brainer, since the contact info for both men are written on similar pieces of paper in the same handwriting. Apparently, Jim Larkins said yes to the documentary, but Joe Maneri wasn’t able. (Unfortunately, both men are now deceased—Maneri in 2007 and Larkins in 2015. Although Maneri had already passed away by the time I began my research, I did have the opportunity to speak with Larkins.)
Meanwhile, Stephenson, who still worked in Housing at Miami and therefore answered to Dean Lykins, may have heard about the documentary project and stepped forward with his story about seeing Ron in Wellsville—first to Lykins, and then to Cella, or possibly vice versa. Even though the H.H.S. note isn’t in the same handwriting as the Larkins and Maneri notes, its position below the Larkins note indicates it was written during the same period in 1976.
But in 1976, Carl Knox was no longer at Miami. He’d left Oxford in 1959, so he couldn’t have been the H.H.S. note’s author.
What does all of this mean? In my view, the Larkins/Maneri/H.H.S. notes tell us a trifle more about how the Tammen saga played out over the years—nothing earth shattering, but something more to ponder during a pandemic on a Friday night. Still, two questions stand out. First, there’s this old chestnut: why did the note writer use Stephenson’s initials instead of writing out his full name? And now a new one: did Carl Knox do anything at all when Stephenson first told him about his encounter in Wellsville?
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.
[NOTE: Be sure you read the comments. Stevie J raises a point about Indiana time zones that makes the Owls gig much more doable. However, a member of the Campus Owls has also provided some background intel that, in my view, makes it unlikely that Ron was going to a gig. I know we’re always being cautioned not to read the comments on other websites, but on this site, thanks to the savviness of you readers, I highly encourage it.] 🙂
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.
One question that’s been floating around for decades is whether housing official Heber Hiram (aka H.H., aka Hi) Stephenson actually bumped into Ronald Tammen at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. If it did happen to be Ron, the next question would be: who were the men he was with? And third: why were they there?
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, these questions could have been fairly answerable back in 1953, after Hi told Carl Knox, dean of men at Miami who oversaw the university’s investigation, about his encounter. Knox could have helped spur the process along by asking H.H. this no-brainer: “Which hotel, Hi?”, and then calling his contact at the FBI. The FBI’s Buffalo office could have chased down some of those details and, if they determined that it was likely Ron, they would have had a super hot lead on their hands. If they decided it wasn’t Ron, they would have reported that info back as well. It’s what they do. But, for some reason, Carl Knox didn’t get that ball rolling.
For what it’s worth, I believe H.H. saw Ronald Tammen that day. I believe it for three reasons. One is that H.H. knew Ron and, as his son has told me, he never forgot a face. That’s big, in my view—much bigger than a stranger who saw a photo in a newspaper and thought that same person had showed up at her doorstep late at night two months prior.
My second reason has to do with human behavior. H.H.’s account is consistent with how two people who think they recognize each other in an out-of-context location would normally act. I mean, we stare, don’t we? We wait for eye contact, assessing whether the other person recognizes us too, and if they do, then we say something. And that’s what they both did—they stared at each other. Because it was less than four months since his disappearance, Ron would have looked about the same, as did H.H. And although we wish he would have acted differently, even H.H.’s decision to not approach the young men’s table seems consistent with what many people would have done in that situation.
OK, perhaps that wouldn’t apply to readers of this blog. Members of our little clique would have likely spoken up. Maybe something like: “Pardon my intrusion, but you look like someone I know. I don’t suppose your name is Ron Tammen?” Or, as one reader pointed out, he would have expected a 1950s version of “WTF, Ron?!?” Either would have been a normal response. But H.H.’s decision to walk out the door and immediately regretting it is normal too. And what did Ron’s lookalike do? He got the heck out of there before H.H. returned. If it were Ron, isn’t that what you’d expect him to do—to run as soon as he had an opening?
The third reason is that H.H. reported his encounter to Carl Knox the next day. If Stephenson had any reservations about who the young man was, he might have said something like, “Wow—I just saw a guy who, if I didn’t know better, looked exactly like Ronald Tammen.” But H.H. fully expected Knox to act on the tip. Considering the fact that they were colleagues and he was putting his credibility on the line, he obviously had no doubt in his mind that it was Ron.
“I was sure it was him,” he told reporter Joe Cella in April 1976.
There is, however, one thing I learned about Hi Stephenson that doesn’t quite jive with my theory. According to his son, Hi Stephenson kept a journal throughout his life, and, as of our phone conversation in February 2013, his son still had the collection. Needless to say, when his son shared this news with me, I was stoked. To obtain a more complete accounting of that encounter in Wellsville would be amazing, would it not? Maybe Stephenson would have described the table of guys a little more—their appearance, their demeanor. Maybe he’d included the name of the hotel and what the daily special was. (The latter tidbit wouldn’t add much to the mystery, but it’s the sort of color I adore.)
Unfortunately, a couple weeks after we spoke, his son sent me an email saying that, after looking through his father’s journal for the date in question, he couldn’t find an entry regarding the Ron Tammen sighting. Of course I was profoundly disappointed, not to mention surprised. On a day when most of Hi’s time was spent reading road signs and counting miles, how he could have thought to write anything other than “Gadzooks—I just spotted Ron Tammen!” is beyond me.
In September 2014, I took a little trip to Wellsville myself.
When I’m on one of my typical Ronald Tammen road trips, there’s one song on my playlist that I crank up louder and more often than the others. It’s Brandi Carlile’s The Story. The studio version is great, but the version with the Seattle Symphony is my all-time favorite. The reason I love this song so much is that A.) It allows me to scream like a rock goddess when she hits that high note, and B.) I feel the lyrics apply to my search for Tammen. I mean, I’ve literally or figuratively done all of those things (which I won’t name, for copyright reasons) for Ron. And that thing she says about her, um, creases in her countenance? After dedicating nearly nine years of my life to this project, well, let’s just say that that hits home in a very big way too.
So there I was, one sunshiny fall Tuesday, blasting Brandi along the highways between my then-home in D.C. and Wellsville, NY. Wellsville is the name of both a village and surrounding town totaling around 7400 people in the southwest part of the state, just eight miles north of the Pennsylvania border. As I neared my destination, I had a strong sense that I was passing the same houses and barns that Ron would have passed by—if indeed it was Ron in that hotel restaurant.
Even a billboard for a restaurant called Texas Hot, which has been serving up chili dogs to Wellsvillians since 1921, looked as if it had been standing along that stretch of road for decades. I knew as soon as I passed it that I’d be eating dinner there that night on the off chance that Ron might have eaten there too.
Texas Hot is named for a type of hot dog topped with mustard, chili sauce, and chopped onions, all on a soft, steamed bun. They are, culinarily speaking, ridiculously delicious. The iconic restaurant has been owned and operated all these years by the same two families, and is now run by the grandsons of the longtime partners and Greek immigrants who got it all started, James Rigas and George Raptis. If you’re anywhere near Wellsville, you have to go. (No, seriously, promise me.)
After finishing off the specialty of the house, accompanied by french fries and gravy, I roamed the town and was soon drawn to the old train station located one block north of Main Street on the corner of Pearl and Depot Streets. The red brick building, once bustling with visitors and the people who welcomed them or bid them goodbye, was boarded up and rimmed with weeds. Located in the center of town, it ostensibly had been a pipeline that helped power Wellsville’s prosperity in the early part of the 20th century.
Most noticeably, the train station was steps away from one of the four hotels that, with the help of a 1953 phone directory, I’d narrowed down as being H.H.’s and Ron’s most likely meeting spots. That was the Hotel Brunswick, at the corner of North Main and Pearl Streets, which now houses a real estate office among other businesses. The other three possible hotels, all of which are no longer standing, were the Fassett Hotel, which was a short walk southeastward on Main Street (55 North Main), Pickup’s Hotel (38-40 North Main), and, a little less than a mile to the north, the Wellsville Hotel (470 North Main), where the Lutheran church now stands.
The proximity of the train station to the Hotel Brunswick led me to wonder: Could Ron have been journeying by train and stopped off at Wellsville for a quick bite or to spend the night? Before that little epiphany, I’d been operating under the assumption that Ron was temporarily living in Wellsville—that perhaps he and his associates were being prepped for some clandestine purpose in a nearby government facility. But if Ron was traveling by train to parts unknown, then the odds of Ron and Hi Stephenson bumping into one another were even more astronomical than I’d originally thought.
The next morning, I paid a visit to the office of Craig Braack, Allegany County’s historian, whose building was located one town over in Belmont, the county seat. Braack, who has since retired, seemed genuinely intrigued by the Ron Tammen mystery, and he ventured a guess that the hotel in which the sighting occurred was probably the Fassett or Brunswick, which had been my top two choices at that point as well. In addition to occupying space among the businesses that lined Main Street, both hotels seemed upscale enough that they would offer the type of restaurant that might suit the tastes of a woman in her mid-thirties—Hi’s wife Kay. Then again, the restaurant couldn’t be too fancy, or it might have discouraged a group of young men from eating there, at least one of whom was on the lam and possibly didn’t have a lot of cash on him.
Braack wasn’t aware of any government training facility, covert or overt, in Wellsville. He was more inclined to believe that Ron was just passing through town, by road or by rail. He informed me that before the Interstate system, Main Street was part of State Route 17, a major east-west thoroughfare at the time. (State Route 17 has since been replaced by 417, which circumvents Main Street.)
“Route 17 goes parallel to our New York-Pennsylvania state line, so it’s possible that they could have been on that,” he suggested.
“Sounds reasonable,” I replied, “as long as they had access to a car.”
I explained that Ron had left his car parked outside of his dorm the night he disappeared, though there was also a chance that he could have been riding in someone else’s vehicle. The other option would have been the train. Braack pointed out that Wellsville’s train station was a major stop along the Erie Railroad, which, like Route 17, ran east and west. Each day, three or four passenger trains would arrive in Wellsville, connecting Chicago to New York City and places in between.
“If they were taking the train, that would have been a way to easily travel a long distance in a very short period,” he said. “That could also be why he was at the hotel.”
Later that afternoon, I stopped by Wellsville’s Nathanial Dyke museum. I was greeted by Mary Rhodes, who was town historian when I met with her, but who recently moved to South Carolina, and Jane Pinney, then-president of the Thelma Rogers Genealogical and Historical Society. (A September 18, 2018, article in the Wellsville Daily Reporter describes Rhodes’ and Pinney’s commitment to preserving the history of the area and their many contributions.) They agreed with Braack that the Erie Railroad and State Route 17 were the two most likely means by which Ron might have rolled into town, since that’s how most people did it back then. Pinney recounted how neighborhood kids peddling lemonade on Main Street would play the license plate game, making a list of the states that were represented as cars either barreled by or pulled over to make a purchase.
“They had every state in the union by the end of the summer,” she said.
But there were plenty of reasons for people to stay in Wellsville as opposed to just passing through. There were jobs there—lots of them. In the late 1800s, oil was discovered in the region, and a refinery was built, which, in 1953, was owned and operated by Sinclair Oil. The refinery was shut down in 1958 after a fire, but the remnants of oil money are still evident by the string of mansions, oozing with opulence, along the roadside north of town.
“OK. Now the name Wellsville makes sense,” I said. As if by reflex, both women jumped in to correct me, something they’d no-doubt done with out-of-towners many times before. Wellsville wasn’t named for its oil wells, but rather for Gardiner Wells, who was the principal landowner when residents were deciding upon the important matter of what to call themselves.
Other major industries in 1953 were the Air Preheater Company, which produced equipment for improving the efficiency of electrical power plants, and the Worthington Corporation, which produced steam turbines, also used in energy production. According to Pinney and Rhodes, the companies were frequent recipients of federal contracts, especially during WWII, and it wasn’t uncommon for hotels to be filled with clients who wished to tour the facilities, to inspect the product, or to be trained in operations. Pinney recalls driving to her job at 7:00 a.m. each day and seeing 20 or 30 executives who were visiting from China performing their exercises on the sidewalk in front of the Fassett Hotel.
In other words, at the time that Ron was potentially spotted by Hi Stephenson, Wellsville was by no means just a tranquil little town along the Genesee River. It was a player, both nationally and internationally.
“The place was booming,” said Rhodes.
Even so, I couldn’t see Ron throwing his old life away to reinvent himself in Wellsville, NY. I mean no disrespect to the good people of Wellsville. It’s just that I don’t understand why there would be any urgency for a young man to run away, cutting off all ties to friends and family to pursue a career in the power industry. I asked if they had any idea which hotel Ron might have been more likely to eat or spend the night in—if, again, it was Ron. Mary said that she thought that the Brunswick was being used as a residence hotel by then, so the sighting probably wouldn’t have been there. Jane’s husband Dave, who’d grown up in Wellsville and who’d joined our conversation by that time, agreed, and added that he didn’t think the Brunswick had a dining room then. The three decided that the Fassett was a more likely candidate. Or Pickup’s. Or the Hotel Wellsville.
Months after my visit, in an email, Mary let me know that she had followed up with one of the town’s residents, who said that the Hotel Brunswick only had a coffee shop and a bar. “Not a real dinner place,” she told me.I decided to eliminate it from consideration, narrowing the options to three.
In Joe Cella’s 1976 news article, Hi had remarked that “he and his wife walked out of the hotel onto the street” when he told Kay about his possible Ron sighting, which is consistent with the locations of the Brunswick, Fassett, and Pickup’s hotels. The Hotel Wellsville, however, was set farther back from the main road, on landscaped grounds. I eliminated it from consideration as well. I was now down to two possibilities: Pickup’s Hotel and the Fassett Hotel.
Pickup’s might seem a little weird for the name of a hotel, but it was named for the family who bought the building in 1936. Constructed in 1852, it was the oldest building in the Main Street business district, though the owners had modernized it. The building had a big sign that said “RESTAURANT” out front that would have been a draw for travelers. An article describing a 1961 fire that “ravaged” the hotel noted that very little of the building was devoted to hotel space and the “principal business activity…centered around its restaurant on the ground floor.” For these reasons—the prominence of the restaurant, and its nice-but-not-too-nice modern touches—Pickup’s was becoming more appealing to me as the backdrop of Hi’s potential Tammen sighting. Plus, it would have likely been the first restaurant Hi would have seen driving into town.
But the Fassett Hotel had its pluses too. Built in 1870, it was a stately brick building whose ground floor had been updated in the 1940s with eye-catching window treatments. It, too, was a popular place for dining—it advertised a “Dining Room” on the sign facing Main Street—in addition to hosting other events.
“You don’t happen to know where I could get my hands on some old hotel registries, do you?” I asked the trio as I was getting up to leave. At once, I felt silly for suggesting that anyone would hold onto 60-year-old hotel registries—even there, in a museum, among people who were fanatical about preserving their town’s history.
Mary said that the former owner of the Fassett Hotel still lived in town and she promised to ask him for me. I thanked her, but I knew the chances were next to nil he would have stored them away somewhere. Unfortunately, I was right.
And that’s where I’m afraid we’ve hit a dead end. My best guess for where Hi Stephenson saw Ronald Tammen or Tammen’s lookalike is at Pickup’s Hotel or the Fassett Hotel, with my personal choice being Pickup’s.
Either it was a run-of-the-mill doppelganger sighting, nothing more, or it was a coincidence beyond all coincidences—an encounter whose odds of occurring are so remarkably small that it appears that something or someone bigger than all of us may have stepped in to make it happen. Call it fate. Call it the universe. Call it a supreme being overriding free will and moving a couple human chess pieces himself. I can think of no other explanation for why two people so close to the Tammen mystery—one being Tammen himself—would land 480 miles away from Oxford in the tiny town of Wellsville, on the same day, at the same hour, and in the same hotel restaurant. But that’s exactly what Hi Stephenson believed had happened.
And Carl Knox? Regardless of whether it was Ronald Tammen or not, the only reasonable explanation for his inaction is that his investigation into Tammen’s disappearance had taken a back seat to his other university responsibilities sometime between June 29, 1953, when newspapers reported Clara Spivey’s possible Ron sighting, and August 6, when Hi Stephenson reported his. Did someone of a higher ranking step in during that period to call off the search? That’s my best guess too.
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.
Clara Josephine Spivey lived with her husband, Carl, in a two-story home on North Main Street in Seven Mile, Ohio. Carl, who was once the mayor of that small town, was an electrician by trade and Clara’s second husband. Her first husband had been tragically killed when, in 1918, a mere five months into their marriage, the delivery truck he was driving collided with a train in nearby Hamilton. Clara married Carl two years later.
By the spring of 1953, Clara was 54 years of age with two grown children. Son Jearl was 32 years old and married. The best I can tell, he was also an electrician living about 20 miles from his parents, in Lebanon, Ohio. Daughter Barbara was 28 and married to a man named Donald Ries. (They would divorce in 1963.) From what I can tell, the couple was also living in Seven Mile.
Late on Sunday, April 19, 1953, reportedly at about midnight, there was a knock on the Spiveys’ front door. Clara was apparently still up at that hour, along with Barbara and at least one other person whom we’ll discuss a little later in this post. Perhaps Clara was emboldened by the presence of the other night owls sitting up with her—safety in numbers, and all that. Or maybe it was just the innocence of the times. Whatever her reason, she went ahead and opened the door.
Thankfully, there was nothing to fear. Standing on her porch was a well-mannered young man with a smudge on his cheek—probably from fixing a flat tire, she presumed—and an embarrassed look on his face. The jacket he had on didn’t seem at all sufficient for the chilly temperatures, in her viewpoint, and he wasn’t wearing a hat either. He had dark, deep-set eyes and close-cropped hair—his most distinguishing characteristics in her mind’s eye. He asked for nothing except some direction.
“What town am I in?” the youth had asked her, according to the earliest news accounts. And then: “Where will I be if I go in that direction?”, pointing northeastward, toward Middletown.
Clara recalled telling the youth that he could catch the bus to Middletown, which just so happened to stop at the nearby corner at that time of night. It wasn’t until the next day that she realized the information she’d given him was in error. The bus schedule for the Oxford Coach Lines had been changed that very day, April 19, and the last run from Oxford to Middletown, which passed through Seven Mile, had been suspended.
Other than perhaps a twinge of regret for having led her visitor astray, Clara didn’t think much about the incident afterward. Then, that June, she learned about Ronald Tammen. She’d somehow missed all the ballyhoo about Tammen when he’d first disappeared, and only became aware of the story by way of a follow-up news article that, in essence, reported that A) he’d been gone for two months, and B) there were no new leads. The article, which featured a large photo of Tammen, appeared in the June 20 issue of the Hamilton Journal-News, Clara’s most likely preferred news source. The same article also appeared in the June 22 issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sometime after seeing the article, she notified the Oxford police, and by June 29, her story was being reported across the Miami Valley as the first real clue in the case. Clara Spivey was convinced that the young man at her doorstep had been Tammen. That photo, which had immediately whisked her back to the night in question, served as proof.
Oscar Decker, Oxford’s police chief, welcomed the potential sighting with a great big bear hug. If it happened to be Ron Tammen, he reasoned, that would bolster the amnesia theory very nicely.
“Tammen disappeared about 8:30 or 9 o’clock from his room in Fisher Hall,” Decker was quoted as saying in one of the June 29th articles. (Based on the font and layout, I think it was the Cincinnati Enquirer, though my clipping doesn’t contain a reference.) “If he wandered away, it would have taken him about three hours to walk to Seven Mile.”
Sure, it was cold, it was hilly, it was late, but it was totally doable in his opinion.
Also convincing to Decker was Clara’s description of what Tammen was wearing that night. The June 29th Hamilton Journal-News article said this: “Mrs. Spivey described the youth’s wearing apparel almost perfectly, according to the chief.” Also, the September 18, 1953, issue of the Miami Student said: “Although she could not see under the dim porch light what the man was wearing, Mrs. Spivey declared that he seemed to have on a light-weight coat with a checked pattern and dark trousers.” Investigators had described Tammen as wearing a blue and tan checked or plaid wool jacket (sometimes referred to as a mackinaw) and blue pants when he disappeared.
An article in the July 3, 1953, Hamilton Journal-News stated that Henry Ciesicki, who was identified as president of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, had interviewed Mrs. Spivey and found that she was indeed positive that the young man she saw was Tammen after looking at photographs of him. However, the article continued, “There were certain discrepancies as to the type of clothing the missing student was wearing and that of the man whom Mrs. Spivey saw, Ciesicki said.” The discrepancies were brought up again in an article by Joe Cella in the April 22, 1954, issue of the Hamilton Journal-News: “[Tammen’s] brother, Richard, maintains that there are some discrepancies in Mrs. Spivey’s story. The type of clothing worn and missing has come up for considerable discussion throughout the investigation.”
Was the visitor on Mrs. Spivey’s porch Ronald Tammen? Before placing your vote, here are some additional points to consider:
If it was Ron who showed up on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep, he would have most likely traveled State Route 73 East to 127 South, which leads directly into Seven Mile. The terrain is hilly, and it seems as if it would require some fairly purposeful trekking as opposed to the wanderings of someone with amnesia. Moreover, if Ron had been on foot, he would have passed by numerous homes along Main Street on his way to Mrs. Spivey’s. An atlas from 1930, which shows the number of properties that existed in northern Seven Mile at that time and, presumably, a corresponding number of houses, can be viewed below. (Mrs. Spivey’s property is along Hamilton & Eaton Road, aka Main Street, near High Street.)
An atlas of the northern part of Seven Mile from 1958 is here.
But don’t just take the Butler Co. cartographers’ word for it. Follow the route for yourself in this video, and try to picture a totally out-of-it Ronald Tammen walking these roads on a chilly, snowy night in unsuitable outerwear. Are you as convinced as Oscar Decker that it was Ron? (Uncopyrighted traveling music provided by the YouTube Audio Library. Apologies in advance for my knack for driving over every possible bump in the road.)
The time of the encounter
As discussed earlier, the first time anyone had heard about the potential Spivey sighting was on Monday, June 29, 1953, when at least two news articles were published. The article that I believe was in the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the visitor had arrived on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep at “about midnight,” while the Hamilton Journal-News reported that the time of night was “about 11 o’clock.” The time discrepancy is intriguing, because the author of both articles was Gilson Wright, a Miami journalism professor who was also an on-call correspondent for a number of area papers. (I’m certain that Wright wrote both articles because, even though there isn’t a byline for either article, the Journal-News identifies Wright as the correspondent for its Oxford section on that date, and the two articles, though not identical, have the same phrasing throughout.) That the same reporter would publish conflicting times for the encounter on the same news day is kind of, um, bizarre, considering the significance of the hour to the overall timeline. “About midnight” was the most frequently reported time over the years, including later issues of the Journal-News, which is why I repeated it in the third paragraph of this post. Also, Oscar Decker is quoted directly in the September 18, 1953, article of the Miami Student, saying that the time was “about midnight.” On the other hand, the 11 p.m. time was attributed to Mrs. Spivey (who, after all, would have been the best source), though not as a direct quote. “Mrs. Spivey said the youth came to her door about 11 o’clock…,” Wright stated in that article.
If the June 29th Hamilton Journal-News version is closer to the truth, Ron wouldn’t have had the full three hours that Oscar Decker estimated a walk to Seven Mile would have required. According to this September 2018 fitness article and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a brisk walking pace is considered to be 3 miles per hour or 20 minutes per mile. If the time was midnight, Tammen would have had 180 minutes to walk approximately 11 miles, or a little over 16 minutes per mile. That would have been a pretty good clip, but still doable. But if the time was 11 p.m.? Ron would have needed to be in a full-on run. The latter scenario wouldn’t exactly fit the storyline that everyone was selling, would it? What’s more, if Ron had been at the Delta Tau Delta song practice until around 10:30 p.m., as has been claimed by at least one person, there was no way Ron could have made it to Seven Mile by either 11 p.m. ormidnight if he was walking.
But what if Ron Tammen had actually been driven to Seven Mile? If a car was involved, there are a few possible scenarios to consider:
Ron was known to hitchhike from place to place, especially when he didn’t have a car on campus. Granted, it would have been odd for him to choose to hitchhike out of Oxford as opposed to driving his own car. However, if, for some reason, he did so and someone picked him up somewhere between Fisher Hall and Seven Mile, chances are that person would have reported it when the media began publicizing his disappearance. If Oscar Decker had received such a call, you better believe that he would have announced it to the press. From what I can tell, there were no phone calls from anyone who either picked up a hitchhiker or who spotted someone walking alongside that stretch of road on April 19, 1953. One caller did think he’d spotted Tammen in Middletown the week after the Spivey article was published, though that obviously didn’t check out.
He was “kidnapped” and left in Seven Mile as a prank.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on this site, fraternities back then used to kidnap pledges and drop them off in the middle of nowhere so they would have to find their way home. Many people, including yours truly at one point, have wondered if that might have been what happened to Ron—the whole fraternity-prank-gone-awry theory. But several factors have led me to rule this theory out. First, the men in Ron’s fraternity are wonderful people and they don’t act all weird when I ask them about Ron Tammen. They really would love to know what happened to him. Second, Ron wasn’t a pledge. He was an active member of Delta Tau Delta, which means that he wouldn’t have been a target for such antics. Third, he didn’t live in the fraternity house, which, according to one of his fraternity brothers, was home base from which a guy would have been kidnapped ifhe were being kidnapped.
Fourth (and perhaps foremost), instead of asking Mrs. Spivey for directions, wouldn’t Ron’s more obvious first question be “Can I use your phone?” According to Carl Knox’s notes, the door to his dorm room was left open and his car keys were in his desk. He could have asked someone from Fisher Hall to pick him up. His roommate, Chuck Findlay, would have been back by then. Also, the questions the visitor asked didn’t pertain to finding his way back to Oxford. In April 1954, Mrs. Spivey would embellish her conversation with the young man to include her pointing the way to Hamilton, Middletown, and Oxford. But that wasn’t the case in June 1953. As described above, the youth asked her what town he was in and where he would be if he went in “that direction,” which was toward Middletown. She’d told him how to catch the bus to Middletown, the crucial detail that enabled her to date stamp the night he’d appeared at her door, since the bus route had ended on April 19. Based on her earliest recollection and, in my view, the one that would have probably been most accurate, there was no mention of Oxford.
Someone who knew him drove him there.
Perhaps someone else could have driven Ron to Seven Mile—someone like the mysterious woman from Hamilton, for example. If that’s true, why he would have gotten out of the car at Mrs. Spivey’s residence isn’t clear, unless, perhaps, he’d tried to escape as the car had slowed down on Main Street. But if he did escape, why (again) wouldn’t he have asked Mrs. Spivey if he could use her telephone to call for help? And where did he go after he left Mrs. Spivey’s? Perhaps someone overpowered him and pushed him back in the car. Still, the young man’s questions for Mrs. Spivey don’t exactly jive with those that might have been asked by someone who was being taken somewhere against his will. At least, they aren’t the sorts of questions that someone would have asked had he been thinking clearly.
The other people in the room
In Joe Cella’s 1976 article in the Hamilton Journal-News, we learned that Clara’s daughter Barbara, whose last name was now Jewell after a second marriage, was also present when the visitor showed up at the door. Though Clara had died in 1975, Barbara stood by her mother’s story. Here’s what Cella wrote:
“Mrs. Spivey has since died but her daughter, Mrs. Barbara Jewell of Seven Mile, remembers the night well. She was there when the knock was answered.
‘I still believe it was him,’ said Mrs. Jewell. When her mother viewed a photograph of Tammen at the time, she said, ‘That’s him. I know I’m not mistaken.’”
Barbara Jewell passed away in 1999. However, in 2012, Frank Smith, Butler County’s former cold case detective, informed me of someone else who was present when the visitor showed up at the door. Smith had stopped by a United Dairy Farmers store for a cup of coffee around the time that the Butler County Sheriff’s Office was getting a lot of local press for their work regarding the dead body in Georgia. According to Smith, a guy came out of the store and said he’d been reading in the paper about the Tammen case.
Recounted Smith, “He said, ‘I was there that night when the door was opened too.’”
Smith then added, “And he told me, he said that he absolutely was confident that that was not Tammen that knocked on the door that night. He thought it was one of the local ruffians that lived down the road. But he was absolutely confident.”
According to Smith, the man who approached him—as he recalled, it was Mrs. Spivey’s son—had been in the military and was battling cancer. He also said that he’d passed away shortly after they talked. I accepted this information at face value and didn’t delve further, which turned out to be a mistake. Memories, as I’ve come to learn time and again, aren’t 100 percent foolproof. If I’d done my fact checking a little sooner, I might have been able to speak with the man myself.
Several years ago, as I was doing some online research, I discovered that the man who’d approached Frank Smith couldn’t have been Clara Spivey’s son. Jearl Spivey had died in 1980, long before Smith had gotten involved in the case. Donald Ries, who, along with Carl Spivey, had passed away in the 1970s, could also be ruled out. However, another possible candidate did pop up—Paul Jewell, Barbara’s second husband. Jewell died in 2014, two years after my conversation with Smith. According to his obituary, Jewell had worked at the Champion Paper Company and, later, The Workingman’s Store, a beloved clothing and shoe store for everyday working people that his parents had opened in Hamilton and where he eventually became owner. The obit also said that he’d served in the U.S. Army from 1958 to 1960, and suggested that memorials be given to the American Cancer Society, among other charities. My guess is that Paul Jewell was the man who approached Frank Smith.
There is one puzzling aspect to placing Jewell in Mrs. Spivey’s home late at night on April 19, 1953. Paul Jewell was 13 years younger than Barbara, born in September 1937. In April 1953, Barbara was still married to Donald Ries, whereas Paul would have been 15 years of age and a sophomore at McGuffey High School in Oxford. (He graduated in 1955.) From what I can tell from old city directories, Paul and Barbara were married in the mid-1960s. So one question I have is, if it was Jewell, why would he have been at the Spiveys so late on a Sunday night when the next day was a school day for him? Another big question I have is: again, if it was Paul Jewell who spoke with Frank Smith, did he and Barbara actually see the visitor or did they just hear Clara’s account, like the rest of us, and form their own opinions? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer.
So what do you think? Was it Ronald Tammen at Mrs. Spivey’s door or merely one of Seven Mile’s local ruffians? Feel free to register your vote here:
And now, for all you readers in the U.S., please be sure to vote for real if you haven’t already. It’s our right, our privilege, and our obligation and probably way more important than anything else we may have on our plates these days.
Let’s also open up the floor. Feel free to weigh in on anything Tammen-related, especially your thoughts on Mrs. Spivey’s story and why you voted one way or the other in our poll.