Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index
Part 131 - The Campus Owl Who Disappeared
Story filed August 6, 2010
For 37 years, one of the top college dance bands in the country was the Miami University Campus Owls. The band was formed in 1924 a month after the legendary Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverine Orchestra played for a fraternity party at the Oxford, Ohio school. The band became an institution at Miami, playing at restaurants in the town and for dances and parties. The Campus Owls also toured the Midwest, went to Europe in 1928 and 1930, to Japan in 1936, to England and Scotland in 1937, and even to pre-war Germany in 1938.
Beginning in 1941, the Campus Owls were led by Cleveland saxophonist and pre-med student Hank Geer whose uncle had been the leader in the 1920s.
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In 1953, when Downbeat magazine named the Campus Owls one of the top three college dance bands in the United States, the bass player was a student named Ron Tammen, a graduate of Maple Heights High School. The Greater Cleveland native was a sophomore business major at Miami University and was also a member of the schoolís wrestling team and the Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
On Sunday night, April 19, 1953, after playing a gig with the Campus Owls, Tammen returned to his dorm room in Fisher Hall. He discovered someone had, as a prank, put a fish in his bed. He went to the hall manager to get some clean sheets and returned to his room to study. That was the last time anyone ever saw the Campus Owlsí bass player.
When Tammenís roommate returned to their room, he found the lights and a radio turned on and Tammenís psychology book lying open on his desk. His wallet, car keys and other personal items were also there. Tammenís clothes, including a heavy jacket he would have worn to go out on a cold night, were still in the dorm room closet. His 1938 Chevrolet sedan was still parked outside in its usual spot, locked, and with his bass fiddle in the back seat. The roommate didnít think much about it at the time. He assumed the student musician had decided to spend the night at his fraternity house. It wasnít until the next morning, when Tammen failed to return, that the roommate began to worry and contacted university officials.
A massive search was launched. Members of his fraternity and 400 cadets of the Air Force ROTC scoured a three-mile area around the campus. Workmen searched a lake five miles away. An old cistern was drained. The county sheriff and the highway patrol widened the search. The FBI checked bus, rail and air terminals in six states.
When there was no sign of the missing student, investigators feared the possibility of foul play and conducted an extensive search of the big, old Victorian dormitory building. Fisher Hall had originally been the home of the Oxford College for Women and in the 1880s had been converted into an insane asylum. There was even an underground tunnel that a doctor had used to get home without being seen by the mental patients. Miami University acquired the property in 1925, re-named the building Fisher Hall, and turned it into a residence hall for students. In the early years of the dorm, some students occasionally stumbled onto old straight-jackets and other mementos of the onetime mental institution. But, by 1953, despite a few ghost stories about the old building, Fisher Hall was little more than a typical college dormitory building.
The investigators found absolutely no signs of foul play or the missing student. The dean said there appeared to be no reason for a voluntary disappearance. He said there was no hint of any financial problems. Tammenís bank account was still active with a balance of about $200. The only police record the investigators found was a traffic ticket. Tammenís family and friends in Maple Heights discounted any possibility that the bass player left the university on purpose. They said he was a deanís list student and would not have left school without telling his family and friends.
The night of the disappearance, a woman named Mrs. Carl Spivey later told police that a dazed young man matching Tammenís description Ė 20 years old, 175 pound, 5-feet 10-inches tall Ė came to the front door of her home about 15 miles from the campus. When she opened the door, the young man asked her how to get to a bus station. She suggested he go to Hamilton. She recalled there was some dirt on his cheek and he seemed to have a blank stare. Despite some snow on the ground, she said he was not wearing a coat. When she closed the door, she expected to hear a car start, but she didnít hear an engine and concluded the young man must have been on foot. Police learned the last bus of the night had left Hamilton before the young man asked Mrs. Spivey about a bus.
But that report prompted investigators to speculate that the Campus Owls bass player may have had an attack of amnesia. Psychologists at the university discounted that theory, pointing out that post-traumatic conditions last for only a few months at most, not for years.
In the months that followed the disappearance, students at Fisher Hall claimed they heard voices near the dorm and some even began chasing what they called "a tall figure" through the darkness. The ghost of Fisher Hall was becoming a Miami University legend.
For years, Miami students were fascinated by the story. Fourteen years after the disappearance, a student group invited a spiritualist to the campus. For whatever it was worth, the spiritualist said he had a vision of a young man going to the basement of the dorm to investigate some noise and encountered two men who came up from behind him and hit him with some kind of object.
Twenty-five years after the disappearance, the university razed the 120-year-old building to make room for a new conference center. During the demolition, there was an extensive search of the rubble, but still no signs of the missing student.
Not long after the disappearance, Tammenís mother in Maple Heights died. His father moved to Florida and later died.
Today, the disappearance of the bass player of one of the nationís best college dance bands is still a mystery. Fellow band members who are still around remember the disappearance as a tragedy.
Copyright 2010 Joe Mosbrook
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