Follow the lie$

Purposely lying to a member of the press is a big fat no-no for a spokesperson of any stripe. Obfuscating—intentionally throwing up smokescreens—is really bad too. But to look a reporter in the eye and say something that’s not in the least bit true takes a special kind of moxie. It also requires a motive. Otherwise, why not just tell the truth? For those with nothing to hide, honesty is so much easier.

So for someone like Carl Knox—who, from what I’ve been told, was an aboveboard kind of guy—to introduce an untruth with a reporter when discussing Tammen’s case seems especially bizarre. Wouldn’t he and other university officials have wanted to get everything out in the open in hopes that it might help them find Ron? What’s more, Knox was still in his first year as dean of men at Miami—a brand new post. He would have wanted to pour everything he had into a task that held such high visibility. Lying about it? That would be the last thing he would have wanted to do.

But then, nobody starts out planning to lie. 

Lately, after finding tangible evidence of a university cover-up, I’ve been examining all of the old news articles for what feels like the zillionth time. I’ve been tracking any lies and obfuscations that are quoted—directly or indirectly— from university officials, knowing what they knew at the time. 

We already know about a couple of them. We know that Gilson Wright (and others) chose to mislead the public about the psychology textbook on Ron’s desk, most likely to direct attention away from Dr. Switzer. We also know that they tried to depict Ron as doing very well in his classes. Once we saw his transcripts, however, we knew that Ron had recently dropped his psychology course for the second time in a year and was slipping far behind in his degree program. Again, the motive behind the deception was most likely to avoid shining a big bright light on Switzer.

There were the other lies and obfuscations too. Among the greatest hits are:

  • When Carl Knox decided not to divulge Paul’s (not his real name) story about his walk back to the dorms after song practice with Ron and Chip Anderson the night Ron disappeared.
  • When Gilson Wright disclosed in a news article that three amnesiac youths had wandered off and later returned, but never mentioned the youths in his articles again. 
  • When Oscar Decker added an hour to the time of arrival of the young man who appeared on Mrs. Spivey’s doorstep on the night Tammen disappeared.

Living your life with one lie can be hard enough. But juggling all of those lies and obfuscations TOGETHER? That’s practically a full-time job. 

Today, I want to discuss another lie that officials opted to tell about Ron—the one about his finances. 

On April 25, 1953, the Saturday after Ron disappeared, Carl Knox was quoted in the Hamilton Journal-News by Gilson Wright, with the following matter-of-fact pronouncement: 

“‘He was not in financial difficulties,’ Dean Knox said after a checkup Friday. ‘But he could not have had more than $10 or $11 in his possession when he left Fisher Hall.’”

On April 29, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“A sizable balance was left in a downtown bank.”

And on May 4, 1953, Wright wrote this in the Hamilton Journal-News:

“…he took only $10 or $11 and left more than $100 in a local checking account.”

I don’t know how much money Ron had in his pocket when he disappeared, but I do believe Carl Knox fibbed about Tammen’s finances. Ron Tammen was experiencing financial difficulties. Despite the fact that Ron was always busy earning money as well as looking for ways to earn more money, he still owed a lot of money, with one of his primary creditors being the university. Also, his bank balance wasn’t “more than $100”—it was $87.25.

Here’s what was going on behind the scenes:

On May 26, 1953, Miami’s bursar, a guy named David C. Alden, wrote a memo to Carl Knox summarizing Tammen’s standing with the university. He said that Tammen still owed the university $100 in board (dining hall fees) and $100 on a “loan fund note,” minus the pay Ron was due as a residence hall counselor ($29.41) and a refund on his room rent and laundry ($29.10). The total Tammen owed, therefore, would be $141.49.

(We’ll get more into that boarding fee and loan fund note in a second.)

Mr. Alden added: “If the brother is still in town and the father and brother have approved the transfer of the account at the Oxford National Bank against the University account, the balance could be reduced by the amount of the account at the bank.”

The Tammens must have agreed to the transfer of funds. On July 2, 1953, Don Shera, vice president of the Oxford National Bank, wrote to Carl Knox letting him know that Ron’s balance of $87.25 had been sent via a certificate of deposit to bursar Alden to help defray the balance owed to the university.

That same day—July 2, which was a Thursday—Alden wrote to Mr. Tammen letting him know that the board fee was actually $110, not $100, and that, with the money from Ron’s bank account applied to the balance, the amount owed by Mr. and Mrs. Tammen was now $64.24. That might not sound like much, but if you plug the numbers into the inflation calculator, you’ll see that $64 in 1953 was worth almost ten times as much as it is today, or $624.

But that’s not my favorite part of Alden’s letter. Here’s the best part:

“I was sorry not to have had a chance to talk with you when I stopped at your residence on Monday. Please be assured that this communication is not being written to press for payment on the balance. Whatever time you need to clear it is satisfactory.”

Um, excuse me? At a time when the Tammens were at a perpetual Red Alert readiness level, hoping and praying with every doorbell and telephone ring for news of Ron, Miami’s bursar thought it would be a swell idea to hop into his car and drive to the Tammens’ house at least 4 hours away (probably longer back then) to discuss Ron’s outstanding balance. What’s more, it sounds as though he did it unannounced. A surprise pop-in! Let me put it thusly: if the university thought the situation warranted the bursar’s driving from Oxford to Maple Heights to personally discuss Ron’s balance, then please don’t tell me that Ron wasn’t in financial difficulties. If $64 meant that much to the university, then think about how much more it must have meant to Ron and Ron’s parents.

But let’s also talk about the university’s initial bill. The bursar said that Ron’s outstanding debts equaled $110 for board plus another $100 for a loan. According to the 1952-53 M Book, every semester, in-state male students who lived in the dorms had to pony up $315.88 for all of their expenses, which included tuition, residence hall rent, board, laundry, and other fees. The most expensive cost was board—eating in the dining hall—which for males came to $175. Although the university asked students to pay the entire amount upfront at the start of each semester, they did allow students to pay board in installments, as Ron chose to do.

Page from the 1952-53 M Book

But Ron wasn’t keeping up very well with the installment plan either. The second semester was almost exactly four months long, starting February 3 and ending with the last day of finals on June 4. Ron should have paid more than two months’ worth in board ($43.75/month), and possibly three months’ worth, yet he’d only paid $65 when he disappeared. (If you think that doesn’t sound like much, I’ll just direct you to Mr. Alden, who felt differently. And don’t forget to use the inflation calculator.)

Now here’s the weirdest part of the university’s bill: that $100 loan fund note. Ron had received a loan from the university for some unnamed purpose. Could this be the same loan that Willis Wertz and Glen Yankee had co-signed, according to Carl Knox’s notes? However, when you take a closer look at what Knox had written, you see that next to Wertz’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note at bank” while next to Yankee’s name, he wrote “co-signed a note.” It appears as if there may have been two loans, one a bank loan signed by Wertz and the other a university loan, ostensibly signed by Yankee. Or maybe Yankee’s note and the university note are different, in which case he may have had three notes.

Which leads me to my next question: why was Ron struggling so much financially when he was bringing in money from residence hall counseling, playing the bass, donating blood, and who knows what else? During the summers and breaks, he worked his butt off at decent-paying jobs as well. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Didn’t go out much with friends. Didn’t date much. He didn’t drive his car much. Even with his car on campus, he was known to hitchhike and bum rides from other people. Where was his money going? 

In his notes, Knox scribbled in some expenses that Ron had incurred here and there with little explanation. Here’s my best attempt at a summary:

Deposits

Of the most recently deposited money, Ron deposited a total of $40 from playing jobs (band gigs) and he also deposited a $100 check on a loan. (Could this be the university loan?)  There was no “activity” in Ron’s bank account—and by “activity,” I think Knox means bank deposits—after April 6, 1953.

Checks written

According to Knox, here were the checks that Ron had written the week before he disappeared. 

4/13/53     $24.45       Delta Tau Delta 

4/13/53     $4.07         Shillitos (clothing store)

4/15/53     $15.00       Cleveland Trust Co., Cleveland, Ohio, American Express Co.

4/16/53     $5.00         Check cash, John Minnis (drug store)

Knox also noted that in December 1952, Ron had obtained a $50 loan to clear up a “Housebill,” which I think means that he needed the loan to pay off his board from the first semester. Knox also noted that he “planned to repay [the loan] after Christmas work.”

By far, the most sizable payment had to do with Ron’s car, a green 1939 Chevy sedan, for which he needed to pay approximately $175 sometime before Christmas 1952. That was a major expense that may have involved some servicing problem—an engine, brakes, or something equally huge. From what I can tell, Ron had paid for the car in full after trading in his first car, a 1929 Ford. (His first car was really old-timey. These days, they’re cute in parades, but compared to what wealthier guys his age were driving, I’m sure he felt the need to upgrade asap.) Thanks to reporter Joe Cella, we know that Ron also paid his car insurance on the Friday night before he disappeared for $17.45. Both the $175 car bill and the $50 housebill expenses had also been paid.

But let’s be real. Ron wasn’t just juggling his grades, he was juggling his finances as well—taking out loans to pay his bills and other loans, which I suppose would be fine if it weren’t for the other bills and loans that lay in wait. See how cyclical debt can be? Ron was drowning in it, and Knox and the others in Miami’s administration knew it. But for some reason, they didn’t want anyone else to know. 

The Tammens weren’t made of money either. I think they were a little freaked out by the bursar’s in-your-face manner of doing business—wouldn’t you be?—and said so to Carl Knox, which prompted Knox to send a follow-up letter on July 6, backing up what Alden had said in his letter and cushioning it with some hopeful news about Mrs. Spivey’s possible sighting. On August 17, 1953, roughly 4 months after Ron disappeared and 12 days after Ron was possibly spotted in Wellsville, NY, Mr. Tammen submitted his check for $64.24, thus closing the university’s ledger on Ronald Tammen, and making Mr. Alden a very, very happy man.

So why did university officials feel the need to lie about Ron’s finances in addition to everything else they lied about? My feeling is that they already had their narrative in place and didn’t want to deviate from it. In their imaginary world, Ron was a stellar student with no failings, therefore, he MUST have walked away with amnesia. If he was having problems—with grades, with money, with his personal life, or anything else—then that would just raise problematic questions from troublesome reporters. And if someone wielding a lot of power was requiring the university to cover up the truth, maybe Carl Knox and the others didn’t have any choice in the matter.

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Monday, 11/16/20, add-on:

Because Mr. Alden’s visit and July 2, 1953, letter to the Tammens was of particular interest to readers, I thought I’d also post Carl Knox’s follow-up letter to Mr. and Mrs. Tammen from July 6, 1953. Although I paraphrased the letter in my write-up, perhaps I didn’t do it justice.

Is it just me, or do you detect a certain officiousness/harshness/annoyance in his tone concerning payment, even while telling them to take whatever amount of time they need? Perhaps his decision to open with the words “It was my understanding” is what gives it a less-than-fuzzy feel, despite the “hoping and praying” that comes later, in the 3rd paragraph.