I never wanted to write this post. Honestly, as I sit here typing, I’m hoping this thing never sees the light of day. If you’re reading it now, please bear this in mind: I’m not a monster. On the contrary, people who know me find me to be rather funny and delightful (for the most part). It has never been my desire for the mere mention of my name to give anyone acid reflux.
But here we are.
Today’s topic has to do with the undated, anonymous, single-page write-up that I found inside a folder in University Archives during one of my trips to Oxford. The document summarizes an interview that had taken place with Carl Knox’s former secretary about the university’s investigation into Ron Tammen’s disappearance. It’s my belief that the interview took place relatively recently.
The document was produced after Fisher Hall was torn down in the summer of ‘78
In bullet #4 of the document, Knox’s former secretary had described some of the steps officials took when Fisher Hall was torn down in 1978, including checking the underlying cisterns and wells for signs of Ron. The year 1978 was 43 years ago, therefore, we know that the document is 43 years old or younger. That’s our baseline.
The document was produced with relatively recent computer technology
The document itself looks as if it could have been printed yesterday. Its paper is clean and bright white, the font appears to be Times New Roman, and it was printed on a laser printer. Also, it looks as if it was written using a relatively recent version of Microsoft Word on a desktop or laptop.
For readers who weren’t around in the early days of office computers, I’d like to present an informal, abbreviated, highly personalized history for you now.
- At least from my experience, desktop computers weren’t a ubiquitous piece of office equipment until at least the mid-1980s, and, in those days, they weren’t anything like what we have today. The computers were clunky. The screens were black with blinking cursors. The print-outs were rolls of paper with punch-out edges. There was no actual “font” per se—just dots in the shapes of letters. The printers themselves were unbearably noisy.
- In 1985, when I started my first real job out of grad school, there was one computer in the entire office for everyone to use, and, to be perfectly honest, it didn’t receive a lot of traffic. At that time, computers seemed to be more for “numbers” people, as opposed to the rest of us, who were joyfully churning out our communiques on IBM Selectrics and word processors.
- But advances were being made at that time. In 1984, Apple’s Macintosh computer came out, which provided an approachable interface for non-computer types like me. A year later, Microsoft Windows was released, which aimed to provide the same type of user-friendly experience for PC users. They weren’t anything like what we have now, but they were off to a good start.
- I think things really took off in the 1990s—first with Windows 95, a vastly improved operating system for PCs, and then the iMac, Apple’s colorful all-in-one computer released in 1998, which especially appealed to the writing and graphic-design crowd.
- These were exciting times and we reveled in them. Phrases like “desktop publishing” and WYSIWYG (pronounced wiz-ee-wig, short for “what you see is what you get”) were our newfound jargon. We began throwing around the word serif when describing our font choices, both when we opted for them (as with Palatino or Times New Roman) and when we went “sans” (as with Arial, Helvetica, and the like). We learned the importance of bullets and bold type to break up walls of grey text. The documents we cranked out took a noticeable turn for the better—not just in communication offices, but in offices everywhere. (You can view a progression of the various Microsoft Word versions throughout the years to see how things have improved.)
- Finally, although the laser printer was invented in 1969, it was at least the 1990s when laser printers became affordable enough for a typical place of employment to purchase one, often for staff to share.
So, based on all of these factors—the font, page layout, and printer—I think we can conservatively say that the document was produced sometime after the mid-1990s (and probably later), shaving off at least another 17 years from our baseline. We’re now at roughly 26 years ago or less.
The author of the document avoids using the word “secretary”
As I described in “Proof of a cover-up, part 2,” another giveaway of the document’s age is how the writer chose to use a different term for secretary, even though that was the person’s title in 1953. The title of secretary fell out of favor roughly 20 years ago, and was replaced with job titles such as administrative assistant or administrative professional. The interviewer refers to Knox’s secretary as the “Assistant to the Dean of Men,” which reflects a sensitivity to modern times.
So that’s my answer: I believe that the interview took place 20 years ago or less, which would also mean that it took place in 2001 or later. Why does it matter? It matters because 2001 wasn’t that long ago. Although the university hasn’t been able to produce any record of the full interview, there’s still a chance that whoever conducted the interview is still walking around with first-hand knowledge of what was said. Of special interest to me are the words that Carl Knox’s secretary wasn’t permitted to say in front of news reporters.
When I first wrote about the summary on this website, I chose not to identify Knox’s secretary by name, referring to her as AD (assistant to the dean) instead. I will continue to do so out of respect for her family. The highly-regarded woman who personified a “life well lived” passed away last October, and her family is still grieving. But I am now going to share some additional information with you so you can better understand why I’ve been pursuing this lead with the exuberance of a Rottweiler whose favorite tennis ball has been yanked from her slobbery jaws.
AD and her husband were a big deal at Miami
AD’s husband was an esteemed professor and dean at Miami, and, after retirement, a professor emeritus. AD and her husband were also big donors to the university. The university’s library houses a large collection in her husband’s name. AD had assisted him with his research. So, it makes perfect sense that someone with the university would have an interest in interviewing her. What’s more…
AD was well known at the library
After working for Carl Knox, AD was employed by Miami University’s library as a cataloguer. She also worked as a volunteer in Special Collections, which oversees the University Archives, the place where the interview summary sits in a box. Employees in Miami’s library knew her for many years and remember her fondly, including the current university archivist, Jacqueline (Jacky) Johnson. It would make sense for someone within the library system to want to record her vast institutional knowledge for posterity—I mean, good grief, she’d begun working for the university in 1952 and she even had an inside track to the Tammen story. She was perhaps the oldest living Miami employee from that era, which means that she was quite possibly the oldest living Miami employee from any era.
The first person I contacted was Jacky Johnson in University Archives to see if she could provide me with AD’s full interview. Johnson let me know that she didn’t have the interview, so I contacted Carole Johnson (presumably no relation to Jacky) who was serving as the interim director of University News and Communications after longtime director Claire Wagner had retired in March. I wanted to find out if someone from the news office could help me track down the interview.
After getting no response, I went higher. I contacted Jerome Conley, dean of Miami University Libraries, and Jaime Hunt, who’d recently been hired as vice president and chief marketing and communications officer, and who oversees University Communications and Marketing. I hoped that, in their senior positions, they would have a better idea of where I should turn. Both were responsive, and the note from Dr. Conley was especially gracious. He knew AD too and let me know that she “…was indeed a very special scholar and lover of libraries. Yes, she recently passed and the world is indeed a tad darker. She was a kind person.”
This was consistent with everything else I’d read about her. If anyone from the library had conducted the interview, I couldn’t imagine them tossing the source materials.
By way of a cc from Dean Conley, William (Bill) Modrow and Jacky Johnson entered the conversation. Modrow, who heads up Special Collections, promised to work with Johnson in conducting a thorough search of the archives and to get back to me. I’ll cut to the chase: the answer that came back on February 1 was no, we don’t have the interview. I asked more questions: can you at least tell me when was the interview conducted and by whom, and what was the source of the document I’d found in the archives? He sent responses, though no clear answers. Feeling frustrated, I asked about their protocol, trying to better understand how something like that could just disappear. His responses reflected his frustration with me too. We were done.
That’s when I did something that I save for only the most desperate of times. I filed a public records request with Miami’s Office of the General Counsel seeking all related emails from the library and communications offices for the period of December 5, 2020 (when I first approached Carole Johnson) to the present. As I mentioned in my Facebook post, this isn’t considered the friendliest of gestures—in fact, it is decidedly unfriendly—but sometimes you need to take these measures to break free from the usual boilerplate and get to the kernel of truth. Perhaps most dissatisfying for me was how I was now in a war of sorts with the two areas of specialization that have always been near and dear to me. For practically all my adult life, I’ve worked in communications offices at universities and in government, and as for libraries—good Lord, who doesn’t love libraries?
After initially pushing back, the OGC asked me to whittle down my request to specific names and to resubmit my request, which I did. About a week later, I got the emails.
I’m not going to lie: I wasn’t all too excited to dive in. For readers who haven’t met me in person, I’m a human with feelings inside. I like people to like me. If someone is saying mean or snarky things behind my back, I’d rather not know. However, after staring at that unopened email in my inbox for a little while, I put on my bullet-proof bathing suit and I dove.
I’m posting all of the pertinent emails in chronological order with some added narration from me, if needed. Some of the conversations were with me, some were about me. I’ve blacked out AD’s real name as well as the name of one retiree whom I’ll discuss in a second. I’ve also blacked out everyone’s email addresses as well as other library staff members’ names, since they’re really not involved. Lastly, I cut off most of the email closings—the polite words of sign-off that occasionally ran counter to what was said in the email—to help speed things along. So let’s all grab a favorite beverage and get reading, shall we?
Whew! Fun, right?
If you were expecting to read someone’s full confession admitting that they’d conducted the interview, then destroyed it, and, by the way, the forbidden words were X, Y, and Z, well, you’re probably disappointed. But don’t be. Admissions of that sort are pretty rare to see in print, I’d imagine.
However, even though specific words weren’t typed out, an underlying message did come through. It’s subtle but noticeable, and it has to do with human nature and how we respond when we don’t want to answer a question directly.
You see, for some time, I’d felt that the one key person who might know something about the interview was a long-time employee of Miami University’s library who’d retired fairly recently. More than once, I asked Modrow and Johnson if they’d asked that person about AD’s interview. In response, they informed me how much the retiree had done for me when he was employed by the university, and they also let it be known how much they or their staff had done for me. Of course I’ll always be grateful for their customer service, but to be honest, it’s not relevant to the question.
Do you know what no one said in response to my question? No one said that they’d reached out to the retiree—who still has a university email address and is therefore ostensibly quite reachable. That, for me, was telling. These are the university’s archivists. These are the people who, according to Modrow, don’t discard materials held in their special collections and archives. Wouldn’t you think that they’d want to know the answer too?
And so, I emailed the retiree myself. Here’s what I wrote:
Look, I can totally see how a situation like this could happen to a good person, and I let him know that in paragraph 2.
In paragraph 4, I promised anonymity, not only to him, but to anyone affiliated with the library if they happen to know who conducted the interview.
Chief of all, I told him that if he didn’t know who’d conducted the interview, all he had to say was “no,” and I would never ask the question again.
My tone was sympathetic and even collaborative, not confrontational. Let’s work together, I told him.
You know what he did?
Nothing. He didn’t do a thing. I’d even cc’d Modrow and Johnson to keep them informed of what I was promising him. I thought they might have an interest in what he had to say and I also thought they could give him a heads up to alert him of my email, if need be.
No one responded to my email.
Studying the words, listening to the behaviors
Throughout my research into the Ronald Tammen case, I’ve occasionally found myself in situations in which someone’s words may tell me one thing but their behavior is saying something else. And you know what? I’ve discovered that there’s a world of information available to us when we listen more intently to a person’s behavior. In my experience, if the words and behavior don’t match up, behavior always wins.
Here are five warning signs I noticed when I paid closer attention to people’s behavior as I read their emails:
#1: They didn’t answer my question.
Again, in my mind, if anyone knew something about AD’s interview, it was the retiree, and I’d asked Modrow and Johnson repeatedly if they’d contacted him. But instead of answering, they would tell me how much work Jacky and the retiree had done for me over the years. Those are true statements, but they’re beside the point. No one answered my question—directly or behind my back—even though I do believe he was consulted, possibly on January 25. If someone had just said, “I checked with him, and he said that he’s not aware of the interview,” I would have taken them at their word and walked away. Their evasiveness is harder to walk away from.
#2: There were signs of worry and an effort to batten down the hatches.
The email I’d written to Jerome Conley and Jaime Hunt was nothing special. In fact, it was pretty routine. I didn’t give them a deadline and there wasn’t an ultimatum to be found anywhere. I was seeking help. But one person stands out as being noticeably concerned about my request. Sometime on December 14 (we don’t know what time), Johnson had left a voicemail message for Carole Johnson of the news office. In an email to her staff the next day, Carole speculated that it might be about my inquiry, and then, in a follow-up email, Carole confirmed that the two had finally connected and Jacky had filled her in about my ongoing interactions with the folks in archives. That’s fine, but it’s also a little weird. Why did Jacky feel the need to contact Carole by phone? Why not just shoot her an email? And when did she call?
At 12:30-ish the following day, Jacky Johnson sent library staff an email asking them to be on the look-out for any contact from yours truly, and if I were to reach out to any of them, they were to contact her. On January 22, I emailed Modrow asking for a status update on my request, and he followed up with Johnson, who told him the following Monday that she was unable to find anything else. Modrow didn’t get right back to me though, which makes me wonder if he’d asked Johnson to do some additional checking, perhaps with the retiree.
Several hours later, Johnson emailed two of the same staff members as before, referring to the retiree’s past work with me, and instructing them, once again, to contact her if they should ever hear from me. As you may have noticed, none of the staff members ever needed to alert Johnson about me, because that’s not how I roll. I play by the rules, and by that time, I was only talking to Modrow. However, even that bit of journalistic courtesy seemed bothersome to her. When Modrow mentioned to her that I’d been in touch with him “twice since yesterday,” she asked him to keep her informed of whatever I was asking for. (I had no additional requests—just the same old questions that I’d repeat as needed.) With the safeguards she was putting into place, Johnson appeared to be most concerned with controlling all communication with me.
#3 The location where the summary document is housed, which may provide a clue to its origin, was never mentioned in emails.
The first time I saw the document, I was sitting in the main study room of University Archives, on the third floor of King Library. But that’s not where the document usually lives. Its home is in the “Ghosts and Legends” folder, folder 18, which is located in the Western College Memorial Archives in Peabody Hall. Someone had kindly delivered the folder to King Library ahead of my visit so that it was there waiting when I arrived.
In an email written February 2, Johnson told Modrow that she and the retiree had given me the summary and she thought it had been scanned by two assistants. But that’s not consistent with my records. To the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t seen the contents of folder 18 until August 2019, five years after the retiree had left his position. Also, no one had made a scan for me—I’d snapped the photo with my iPhone. That shadowy shot of a tilted sheet of printer paper is mine all mine, people, ©2019, all rights reserved.
Interestingly, the two staff members whom Johnson had mentioned as having scanned it were the same ones she’d sent a second cautionary email to on January 25, and it was one of these staffers who’d helped retrieve folder 18 for me prior to my 2019 visit.
Why is the location of folder 18 important? One tidbit worth noting is that AD’s interview might have been conducted by someone affiliated with the archives housed in Peabody Hall. Coincidentally, Jacky Johnson was the head archivist there from 2005 to 2015, prior to her becoming head of University Archives.
#4 They showed virtually no interest in obtaining AD’s interview.
As I mentioned earlier, an interview with AD should have been of significant interest to people in University Archives. My original email seeking help in finding source materials should have been met with genuine curiosity. You’d think they’d want to find out if they had source materials or at least where the summary came from.
When I filed my public records request for emails, I’d at least hoped to see an email trail of staff putting their heads together and brainstorming or consulting with other staff. That behavior is evident with the news and communications folks, but not on the archives’ side, who could be described as defensive from the get-go.
The search itself appeared to be conducted by Johnson alone, who would send meager updates saying “I looked” or “I looked in the collection,” but nothing more in-depth than that. The most detailed response she’d provided was that she’d looked in AD’s husband’s faculty file. There was never any mention of databases searched under keywords A, B, and C, or however else she might have conducted a thorough search. From what I can tell, she didn’t reach out to anyone else to see if they might have information about the interview, unless, as I mentioned, she checked with the retiree but never said so.
#5 The retiree didn’t answer a simple yes-or-no question, even when I told him that I’d go away if his answer was ‘no.’
When I sent my email to the retiree, he didn’t answer my simple yes-or-no question about whether he knew who conducted the interview. If the answer was “no”—that he didn’t know—all he had to do was say so, and I would go away. I promised him as much. That would have been the easiest thing for him to do. Instead, he ignored my email.
An early behavioral clue from the retiree
The last time I saw the retiree was in 2013, one year before he stepped down from his post at Miami. During that visit to Oxford, I was interested in learning more about Miami’s psychology department in 1953, particularly Everett Patten and St. Clair Switzer. As usual, the retiree was helpful. I remember him sitting in his office and asking me for one of their names.
“Everett Patten,” I said.
As I stood outside his office, he began typing on his computer. And then he stopped.
“Oh…,” he said. Or maybe it was “hmmm.” It was a small but audible reaction.
“What?” I asked.
“Hypnosis,” he said. He was looking at an old article on Patten in the Miami Student, which he probably printed out for me. But that small reaction from him had always stayed with me. It was a signal of recognition, as if it wasn’t the first time the topic had come into his field of view.
And that raises another point. The retiree was practically a walking, talking search engine when it came to Miami University history and AD was a longtime friend of the library. I’m sure he knew her well. If anyone would have known she’d been Carl Knox’s secretary, I’d think he would have. And yet, when he also knew I’d been working for a while on a book about Ronald Tammen, he never mentioned that there was a person who still lived in Oxford who could provide a first-hand account of the university’s investigation. You’d think he might have told me about her.
Miami University’s response
The two people whose behavior I found most perplexing throughout this whole process were Jacky Johnson and the retiree, and I said so to the university. I approached Carole Johnson with a draft of my blog post plus the email documentation, and asked her for a university comment or, if possible, a confidential conversation, since it appeared to me that the individuals knew something about the interview.
Today at 5 p.m., Carole Johnson sent the following comment. (Note that I am redacting AD’s actual name as well as the retiree’s.)
“The University’s response remains unchanged. The University staff that you keep contacting, including myself, Jacky Johnson, and William Modrow, do not know who conducted the interview with XXXXX nor do we know anyone who does know the answer to that question. We do not know what was said in that interview beyond what is reflected in the document previously provided to you. We have thoroughly searched our Archival records and they have been provided to you. XXXXX retired from the University. We will not contact him on your behalf. I know that this is not the response you were hoping for but your repeated inquiries will not change the answer. There is nothing more that the university can do to assist you in your search for information.”
Thank you very much for this response. And because I’m the blogger here, I get to comment on the university’s comment:
I kept contacting the university staff because they wouldn’t answer my questions. It’s my general practice—maybe even a little personality quirk of mine—to stop asking a question once it’s been answered. Modrow and Johnson never answered my question about whether they’d consulted with the retiree. Ne.Ver. They still haven’t answered it. It took several back-and-forths before they addressed my questions about whether they knew who conducted the interview and when.
As for Carole Johnson’s remark that “I know this is not the response you were hoping for,” the response I actually hope for—and what I’ll continue hoping and working for—is the truth. And I will seek the truth about Ronald Tammen even if the university has apparently moved on.
ERRATA — Everyone, I’ve decided to remove the second paragraph from warning sign #5 because it implied knowledge on the part of the retiree, when in fact we still don’t know if he read the email. Silence can have many meanings. My apologies for not stating that more clearly.