Happy birthday, Ronald Tammen



Ronald Tammen was born on July 23, 1933, which means that, if he’s still alive, he’d be 84 today. In celebration, I thought we’d steer clear of our usual topics of why and how he disappeared, and share a few stories that his friends and family members have told me—stories that, if Ron were still here, seated at a table with his cake aglow, would elicit that winning grin of his. Many articles have been written about Ronald Tammen over the years, yet very little information has been revealed concerning who Ron was as a human being. I hope the following stories, as told by the people who were fortunate enough to know him personally, will help.

P.S. These tapes were originally created for my own use, and not with the intent of playing them for the public. As a result, I apologize for my less-than-stellar interview style accompanied by the occasional clattering dishes, background voices, country-western tunes, wind gusts, etc. Needless to say, broadcast journalism was never my calling.

For accessibility purposes, a transcript is provided below each audio clip.


Ron Tammen’s prom date

Ronald Tammen’s date to the senior prom, a woman by the name of Grace, describes the qualities she liked best in Ron. (1:00)

Prom date transcript


Ron Tammen’s fraternity brother

A fellow Delt describes two reminiscences he has of Ronald Tammen:

a happy memory of Ron playing the bass in the Delt house while people sang along. (0:43)

Delt transcript 1

— a rather frightening memory of when Ron and he hitchhiked from Miami University to Akron/Cleveland. (0:44)

Delt transcript 2


Ron Tammen’s fellow bandmate

A former Campus Owl discusses how good the band was when he and Ronald Tammen were members as well as some of the perks they enjoyed by playing in one of the best campus bands in the country. (2:23)

Campus Owl transcript


Ron Tammen’s counselee in Fisher Hall

Former Fisher Hall resident Richard Titus tells how the dead fish wound up in Ron Tammen’s bed. (1:41)

Richard Titus transcript



Ronald Tammen’s older brother John talks about what a natural-born salesperson Ron was. (2:04)

John transcript



Ronald Tammen’s sister Marcia discusses how much fun Ron was as a big brother. (0:46)

Marcia transcript



Ronald Tammen’s brother Robert, the youngest of the Tammen siblings, describes a distant memory of when the entire family was together. (0:44)

Robert transcript

Happy birthday, Ronald Tammen! Here’s hoping we have a much clearer picture of what happened to you by the time you turn 85.


8:30, 10:30…does it really matter?

Carl Knox note--jpg
A page from Dean Carl Knox’s notes describing what Charles Findlay had discovered when he walked into their room (see red arrow): “Sunday 10:30 Light on — Door Open, but [Ron] never returned.”

Does it even matter whether Ronald Tammen disappeared two hours later than what we’d all been led to believe? Who cares if it was 8:30 or 10:30 p.m.? We still don’t know what happened to Tammen.

It matters because of what it might mean regarding how Ron went AWOL. Did he walk out of his room voluntarily or was he ushered out by force? One knock against the “foul play” theory with regards to an 8:30 departure time was that, with Ron sticking so close to his room for most of the evening, there would have been little opportunity for someone to catch him off guard and whisk him away. First he was studying with Dick Titus down the hall, then he was supposedly reading in his room, and next he was walking downstairs to pick up some sheets as well as reportedly talking on the phone with his brother Richard. While it’s possible for someone to nab him under those circumstances, it doesn’t seem ideal. My guess is that if he disappeared at around 8:30 p.m., he likely walked out of his room on his own.

If, however, Ron was at song practice, a planned occurrence that occupied a designated block of time, someone would have had nearly two hours in which to prepare for an encounter of some sort. According to a Fisher Hall resident whose room faced Ron and Chuck’s room, Ron frequently left the door to their room open, even if he left the building.

“The only time he closed the door was when he went to bed,” the person told me. “Otherwise, it was open at all times, even when he was studying or out.”

What’s more, there was a fire escape outside their window. If someone knowledgeable about Ron’s schedule and habits wished to ambush him (for whatever reason), that person could have entered through the door or window, stepped into the closet, pillowcase in hand (remember the pillowcase that never made its way onto the pillow?), and waited until Ron returned to his room.

Of course, 10:30 was also the time at which Findlay returned to the room, according to Dean Knox’s notes (see red arrow in image), which means that, whether it was precision planning, uncanny luck, or both, someone would have pulled off a fantastic feat just in the nick of time. Or perhaps someone was hiding outside in the shadows of Fisher Hall at 10:30 p.m. awaiting Ron’s return and he never made it back inside. The latter scenario makes it more difficult to explain why Ron’s wallet and keys were left in the room, but perhaps he’d emptied his pockets before heading to song practice. Either way, whether it happened indoors or outdoors, if Ron had disappeared after 10:30 p.m., it seems more likely that someone else had been involved.

There’s a third option, one recently suggested to me by a reader, that combines a voluntary exit with a forced departure. Suppose Ron walked outside on his own to meet someone—maybe at 10:30 p.m. after song practice, but it could have happened at 8:30 too. Ron might have been leery of the person, so much so that he decided to leave most of his personal effects behind. He might have even brought along the pillowcase to carry something back from a transaction. At some point, the person (or persons) could have thrown Ron into the back of a car and driven him somewhere, perhaps Seven Mile. This is a possibility too, which (sadly) means that the potential discovery of two additional hours doesn’t rule out very much—not without more information.

Perhaps the true implication of whether Ron left at 8:30 or 10:30 is this: for some odd reason, university and law enforcement officials never told reporters about their discussions with Paul. (It still isn’t clear who, in addition to Carl Knox, had interviewed Paul. Although Paul first described him as a member of the police force in Oxford, he later said that he wasn’t entirely sure what operation he was affiliated with since the man was out of uniform.) Investigators publicly discussed other leads that had gone nowhere—a lady in Cincinnati, for example, who’d thought that she’d rented an apartment to someone who looked like Tammen or motorists who’d reported picking up hitchhikers who resembled him—but they never disclosed Paul’s claim that Ron had been to song practice that night. The case was so lacking in clues that, even if investigators had possessed ironclad evidence that ruled out Paul’s story (which, by the way, I haven’t seen any indication of), you’d think that they would have at least mentioned to reporters that they’d chased down that lead but that it, too, was a bust. So the secrecy—the secrecy about song practice—may be what matters most.

Addendum — What about the fraternity pin?

As an addendum to today’s post, it’s interesting how a new discovery can affect how you look at old clues. Just as I was adding the above image to this page, I reread the words Dean Knox had penciled in at the top: “Car Keys in Desk with Fraternity Pin.” It struck me: were the Delts required to wear their fraternity pins to all functions, including song practice? If so, and if we are to believe Paul’s story, then it would appear that Ron did make it back to his room before he disappeared. I asked Paul if he remembered having to wear his pin to all fraternity functions, to which he said, “The House encouraged guys to wear their pin but I don’t recall a fine for not wearing it.” Looks as though I may need to get my hands on the 1953 Delta Tau Delta bylaws.

On birthdays, memories, and song practice

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Today’s my birthday. I share it with the birth of our country, which has always made me feel kind of special. Other notable birthday buddies include George Steinbrenner, Leona Helmsley, and Geraldo Rivera. (We Cancers can be characters.) If I could have chosen a day of the year on which to be born, I suppose I would have even chosen this day. There was always something fun to do—picnics, ball games, boat rides, and pyrotechnics to cap it all off.

When something happens on my birthday, chances are pretty good that I’m going to remember it. While I can’t remember every detail of every birthday I’ve ever had, I do remember many of them. And if something out of the ordinary happened on my birthday, that made a bigger dent. It became a part of me—filed away for the rest of my life. I’d venture to say that, if something happens on my birthday, there’s a better chance that I’ll remember it than if it happens on July 5 or 10 or 31.

Which brings me back around to the Ronald Tammen story and my most recent discovery. You may still be unsure about whether to believe Paul’s version of events. I get that. It was so long ago, and memories do have a way of morphing over the years.

But there’s something I haven’t shared with you up until now.  April 19 is Paul’s birthday. That’s why his memory of song practice that night is so vivid. He kept his birthday to himself, he told me, because he’d seen how merciless those guys could be in celebrating other Delts’ birthdays. No sense in putting oneself through that if you can help it. But regarding the question of whether there was a song practice that night, and who it was he walked home with? On those topics he’s quite sure. Sure as the day he was born.


When memories collide, part 2: Song practice, the University of Kentucky, and a meeting over coffee

Photo credit: Dan Gold on Unsplash

In my last post, Paul (again, not his real name), a fraternity brother of Ronald Tammen’s with an extraordinary gift for remembering, had just told me a story that added roughly two hours to the timeline of Tammen’s known whereabouts before he went missing. Of course, the easiest way to corroborate Paul’s version would have been to track down the third guy who allegedly walked home from song practice with Ron and Paul—Chip Anderson—and ask him what he remembered about the night Tammen disappeared. Unfortunately, Chip passed away more than 20 years ago, in 1993. I reached out to his family in hopes that Chip might have shared his tale with them over the years, however, Chip’s wife has also passed away, and two of his sons don’t recall ever hearing their father talk about Ronald Tammen or a fateful walk home.

I also tried contacting the fraternity—both the Miami chapter and national headquarters—to see if there might be old records documenting a song practice held on April 19, 1953, and, if so, the names of the attendees. It was a long shot that also failed.

I touched base with a couple Delts in Ron’s pledge class with whom I’d spoken at the start of my book project. Neither had any recollection of song practice on the same night as Tammen’s disappearance. I then drew up a longer list of Delts—this time including men who had pledged during the spring of ‘53 plus anyone else who, for whatever reason, wasn’t pictured in Miami’s yearbook until the following year. I called or emailed as many men as I could find to see if anyone remembered having song practice on April 19 and, if so, was Ronald Tammen standing there among them? Again, no one could recall attending song practice that night. One person said that he thought he’d seen Ron at the house that evening, sometime around 7 or 8 p.m., although he was just guessing about the time and he didn’t know the reason why Ron might have been there.

Just as I was about to lose all hope, one of Ron’s fraternity brothers—I’ll call him Bill—let me know that he had a very distinct memory of the topic in question. The reason, he said, was that he was in charge of the Delts’ participation in the Intrafraternity Sing on Mother’s Day weekend that year. He also remembers—vividly—Ron asking to meet with him on the Thursday before Ron disappeared. The reason for the meeting was a scheduling conflict that Ron was experiencing.

“So Ron at the time was the song leader for Delta Tau Delta, and he called me and said, ‘Can we meet? I’ve got everything rearranged.’ And I said ‘OK,’” Bill explained. “So we went to a little restaurant on High Street called Coffee Pete’s, and he and I talked about what was going to happen on the Saturday when they were having the song [competition].”

Bill recalls their conversation like this: Ron had told him that the Campus Owls were scheduled to play at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, that upcoming weekend, and Ron needed to be there. Fortunately, Ron assured him, he’d found a replacement who was willing to serve as the group song leader, a guy named Ted Traeger. Traeger would direct the group on Saturday, which, as Bill recalls, was the day of the Intrafraternity Sing.

“[Ron] went through the whole deal, what Traeger was going to do,” said Bill, “and when that concluded, we shook hands, and I said, ‘Have a good weekend,’ and he said, ‘You too. Everything will be all right,’ and to be honest with you, that was the last I ever saw Ron.”

As intriguing as Bill’s story was, a couple key points—both easy enough to fact check—didn’t fit very well, namely:

  • Miami’s Mother’s Day weekend was held on the second weekend in May in 1953, not the weekend of Ron’s disappearance. The Intrafraternity Sing took place on Saturday, May 9.
  • The Campus Owls weren’t playing in Kentucky the weekend that Ron disappeared. According to news accounts, at least some band members were playing at Short High School, near Richmond, Indiana, that Friday night (though it doesn’t appear that Ron was among them), and they played at the Omicron Delta Kappa carnival at Miami on Saturday, which Ron did attend.

I didn’t want to quibble with him about the inconsistencies. People remember what they remember, and (I can’t stress this enough) it was 64 years ago. I made a mental note to work out the dates and places a little later and moved on.

I asked Bill if he attended all of the Delts’ song practices, and he told me no. While he was in charge of their participation in the competition, he sang in a quartet instead of the bigger group. Hence, he wouldn’t have known whether Ron was at song practice that weekend or not.

I then told Bill that news organizations had reported that Ron had been asked to step down as song practice leader because of his many activities. It was my thinking that, if anyone had the authority to ask Ron to step down, it would have been Bill.

“So it wasn’t you who asked him to step down?” I asked him.

“Absolutely not,” he said.

This was in sync with what Paul had remembered as well. In Paul’s view, there was no way that anyone would have asked Ron to step down as song leader. Ron was the only one of the bunch who was musically inclined. I later followed up with Paul and asked him if he remembered Ron being replaced by Ted Traeger after Ron disappeared, and he responded that Traeger “was indeed the replacement song leader.” (Unfortunately Traeger passed away in 2012, so I was unable to ask him directly.) So those two details checked out.

Why, then, would Ron need to seek a replacement? He was still in town for the weekend of April 17-19. But Bill was so sure that the Campus Owls had traveled to the University of Kentucky, I consulted the archives of the university’s student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, to see if they might have a record of it.

As expected, the Campus Owls weren’t mentioned anywhere during April 1953. However, an article appearing in the Friday, May 8, 1953, issue said that the Campus Owls would be entertaining the students the next night—May 9—which also happened to be the date of Miami’s Intrafraternity Sing. (See the upper lefthand corner of the paper.)

Campus Owls to be at UK, 5-8-53, p1
Used with permission of The Kentucky Kernel

And that’s when it all made sense. When Ron asked Bill to meet with him the Thursday before he disappeared, Ron was doing what Ron did best—he was being responsible. The Campus Owls were going to be playing at the University of Kentucky the same day as the Intrafraternity Sing, and he knew about that conflict weeks in advance. He made arrangements to have Ted Traeger take his place and he wanted to let Bill know about the change ahead of time. Sure, Bill may have confused the date over the years, but his recall regarding the reason behind the switch was spot on.

But that left a remaining question: if Ron had been planning to play at the University of Kentucky on May 9, why would he attend song practice on April 19? My guess is that he was just being his responsible self. Perhaps he wanted to show Ted the ropes before he turned him loose. Maybe he thought his presence was still needed to help his vocally challenged fraternity brothers. Regardless of the reason why Ron would have attended song practice that night, I’m leaning in favor of the notion that he was there. I think this even though I was unable to find a single living soul other than Paul who remembered Ron being there. And I have Murray Seeger to thank.

In his 1956 Cleveland Plain Dealer article, the one in which someone had mistakenly (in my view) told Seeger that Ron had been asked to step down as song leader as opposed to voluntarily finding his own replacement, Seeger wrote:

“But this did not seem to upset him unduly—he took a place in the singing group and let someone else direct it.”

Ron “took a place” in the group. If we are to believe what Seeger is saying, we’re left to conclude that Ron had attended at least one song practice after his meeting with Bill. And since Ron had met with Bill the Thursday before he disappeared, there was only one practice that he could have attended—the one that occurred on Sunday, April 19.

What do you think? Was he there or not? And does it even matter?

When memories collide, part 1: The Delts, song practice, and a momentous walk home

Photo credit: David Beale on Unsplash

It can be a jolting experience when a highly credible person I’m interviewing reveals information that doesn’t jive with what’s been said or written on Ron Tammen’s disappearance. If my underlying premise is solid, new details can adjust and resettle around the old, and things can return to normal fairly quickly. My understanding of what happened is slightly altered, but stronger. If, however, the premise is more loosely constructed, full of gaps and leaps, I’d know pretty much then and there that I needed to abandon it and start rebuilding from scratch. Such was the test I faced one recent Thursday morning when everything I thought I knew about Ronald Tammen’s last minutes at Miami experienced a tremor measuring about 7.1 on the Richter scale.

I’d been speaking to a former fraternity brother of Ron’s, whose name had been passed along to me by one of his classmates. He’d just celebrated his 84th birthday, but his voice sounded as if he were in his 60s or early 70s, and his memory was strong and sure on the most minuscule of details.

“The only times that I really saw him was at song practices,” my Delt friend told me (let’s call him Paul), when I’d asked him if he ever interacted socially with Ron. Paul explained that on Mother’s Day weekend, an event in May when students’ moms would descend on Miami’s campus in lavender-scented droves, fraternities would hold a singing competition at Withrow Court. (Withrow, a beloved brick building where dances were held and basketball games played, was demolished last summer.) The competition was the high point of the weekend, and an occasion for which the Delts had been preparing for weeks. It was, Paul let me know, a very big deal.

“The only guy who could carry a tune or who knew anything about music in the Delt house was Ron,” Paul said, so Ron was the Delts’ obvious choice for song leader. Paul also remembers the day and time at which they’d scheduled their practices: Sunday evenings at around 10 p.m., after women’s curfew. (That way, a guy could return from a date and still make it to singing practice.) Sometimes, however, they might opt to hold practice an hour earlier, he said.

With respect to the practice on April 19, 1953, Paul is unsure if it was held at 9 or 10 p.m. It was, after all, 64 years ago.

“But you do remember that Ron was at practice?” I asked.

“There’s no question. I walked home with him,” he responded.

What?, I thought. The seismic rumblings had begun.

“So what happened that night was we had the song practice, and Daddio [the house chef] made hamburgers for us, and then we all broke up,” he said.

Paul then proceeded to tell me how he, a guy named Chip Anderson, and Ron walked back to their dorms on a path that ran from the Delt House, between the Natatorium and Withrow Court, and across what is now the baseball field. They ended near Symmes Hall, the freshman dorm where Chip and Paul lived.

“And we said good night to [Ron] and he walked on. And as far as we know, Dean Knox told me we were probably the last ones that he knows that saw him.”

I’m not going to lie—the entire time that I was listening to his story, I was thinking that he must be mistaken. I wondered if it might have been Richard, Ron’s younger brother, who had walked back with them. That would have made more sense to me. Richard had pledged Delta Tau Delta that spring. I could easily imagine how, as the years rolled by, the part of the brain where memories are stored might replace one Tammen with another one. Or maybe it was Ron whom he walked home with but just on a different night.

But his last comment—the one about Carl Knox, the dean of men who headed up the university’s investigation—suddenly gave me pause. That’s a memory that would stick hard and fast.

“This is all new information,” I stammered. I said something about there being no news accounts putting Ron at song practice at 10 p.m—that everything I’d read stated that he returned to his room at about 8 or 8:30 after picking up the sheets.

“It’s possible that he was back in his room at 8:30,” he replied, “but the point is that if he was there at 8:30, he wasn’t in for the night. He had left and come back out to the Delt house for song practice. There’s no question—he wasn’t back before 10:30 p.m.”

Before my conversation with Paul, song practice was one of the more benign details of the case. In 1956, Murray Seeger of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had reported that, about a week before Ron disappeared, he had been asked by the fraternity to step down as song practice leader because his other activities were getting in the way. “But this did not seem to upset him unduly—he took a place in the singing group and let someone else direct it,” wrote Seeger.

Whatever, I thought, after stumbling on that passage for the first time. Ron Tammen was a busy guy. Being the bar-setting overachiever that he was, he was probably a little embarrassed to be asked to step down, but also relieved to give up one of his many obligations. Maybe he was experiencing some stress, but name one college sophomore who hasn’t. In my seven-plus years of research into Ron Tammen’s disappearance, I honestly don’t think I spent more than ten minutes thinking about the Delts’ song practice and how it might have fit into the equation.

Now, all of the sudden, I was being told that Ron was actually at song practice on the night of April 19 and walking back to Fisher Hall at around 10:30 p.m.? That was too much to wrap my head around at that moment.

“There was information in the news saying that Ron led the song practice, but then like a week before he disappeared, he was asked to step down. Do you remember that?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

“…and that somebody else took over?”

“I can’t imagine. We didn’t have another guy that could carry a tune, Jenny. There’s no question. We couldn’t have. That’s not true.”

So here was my predicament: Paul’s story had never before reached the light of day, yet he was crystal clear on the details, many of which were aligned with what I already knew (or thought I knew). He told me that he remembered Ron teaching wrestling moves to a few other guys that night as they waited on their burgers. He recalled a light snow falling, barely covering the ground, yet enough so that he had noticed his footprints as they walked to the dorms.

“I remember it well because I went through all kinds of interrogations on this. Dean Knox talked to me several times. There was a member of the police force in Oxford who also spoke to me about it, so I remember the details pretty well of what happened that night.”

After the call ended, and I had time to fully process what he’d just told me, questions began churning in my brain regarding the implications of this new version of events:

  • If Ron was going to song practice after he changed his sheets, why would he tell Mrs. Todhunter that he was going straight to bed?
  • Why didn’t someone from the fraternity tell Chuck Findlay, Ron’s roommate, that Ron had been at song practice, when he asked them on Monday if anyone had seen him?
  • If Ron had arrived at his room at around 10:30 p.m., how did he not run into Chuck, who also supposedly arrived at the dorm at that time?
  • And finally, how did this fairly explosive detail get past every single reporter who’s ever written about the case, particularly Murray Seeger, who actually had a conversation with someone on the very topic of song practice?

One thing was obvious: if Ronald Tammen had arrived at his dorm room at 10:30 p.m., there was no way that he’d be able to hike the 11 or so miles to Seven Mile and knock on Mrs. Spivey’s door before midnight. Not without a little help.

Coming soon: my search for corroborating evidence