Ginger Tam used to joke, “There isn’t a room in Chicago that I haven’t closed.”
For decades, she sang at venues including the Ritz-Carlton, Toulouse on the Park, Green Dolphin Street and Pops for Champagne.
Once, while her clarion voice was ringing out at the Drake Hotel, Liza Minnelli and Joe Pesci walked in.
“I played for them!” she would say with delight.
Ms. Tam, 56, of Northfield, died at JourneyCare hospice in Glenview on Feb. 10 after a nearly seven-year battle with Stage 4 lung cancer.
Told she had a life expectancy of two years after her diagnosis, Ms. Tam was determined to live as long as possible for her daughter, Amelia, 14.
“I don’t want to see my daughter hurt,” she once said. “That’s my biggest fear.”
“When I think of Ginger, I think of a mother first and a lung-cancer crusader second,” said her cousin, Mary Beth Slack.
She became a fierce advocate for medical research funding, lobbying on Capitol Hill. And Ms. Tam investigated clinical trials across the country so she could participate.
Through it all, she kept on singing and inspiring her medical team.
Irene Haapoja, a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center who helped care for Ms. Tam, called her “a force of nature.”
“She did everything that she could to keep herself alive as long as she could for her daughter,” Haapoja said.
“Ginger was one of our favorites,” said Rush oncologist Dr. Philip D. Bonomi.
For research, Haatoja said Ms. Tam donated some of her tumor tissue to the biotech company Charles River Laboratories. She also appeared in a video for Charles River that raised $25,000 for lung cancer research, according to her friend Lisa Howard.
Ms. Tam lobbied for research in Washington, D.C., with the Lung Cancer Alliance and with U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Howard said. And she sang at several alliance meetings.
“When I think of Ginger Tam, I picture a courageous, determined and inspiring mother and advocate,” said Lung Cancer Alliance CEO Laurie Fenton Ambrose. “She made a difference by tirelessly sharing her powerful, personal testimony about her cancer journey with members of Congress, patients and the public.”
“Sometimes she would fly out to Denver every few weeks for an experimental treatment, sometimes she’d be on something [Dr. Philip Bonomi] had concocted at home, sometimes we sent her to other places around the country,” said Dr. D. Ross Camidge, an oncology professor with the University of Colorado Denver. “UC Davis in Sacramento got to enjoy her for a while, for example — wherever the best treatment was in our opinion, we tracked it down. She racked up air miles and friends along the way.”
And, Camidge said, “She also made a wig look better than almost anyone else I have ever seen.”
To raise awareness about lung cancer, Ms. Tam sang the national anthem at Wrigley Field in 2014.
For more than 25 years, she sang for the Dick Judson Orchestra. She was a huge asset to the band: hardworking, talented and with arresting green eyes. In fact, once she saw Ms. Tam, one bride-to-be once canceled the band for her wedding banquet, according to Judson’s wife, JoAnne.
“(The bride) said . . . ‘I mean, my husband-to-be really thought she was really special.’ I said, ‘She is,’ ” said JoAnne Judson. “And so she said, ‘So I’m not gonna use her.’ ”
“I was really in awe of the way she could sing pop songs,” said cabaret singer Denise Tomasello. “She had a really wonderful range.”
Jazz vocalist Paul Marinaro said Ms. Tam became his first friend and cheerleader when he moved to Chicago in 2003.
“She had a magnificent voice. She was extremely talented, probably one of the best I had heard, yet she would kind of downplay her own talent to let other people shine,” Marinaro said.
Ms. Tam also did voice work for the animated kids’ show VeggieTales.
“She was born a singer,” said her sister, Charmaine Tam. “She would be singing, you know . . . sing with a hairbrush as a microphone when you’re only like 7.”
Ms. Tam used to say her daughter Amelia was a better singer. She sang at an open mic reception following her mother’s Feb. 24 memorial service and performs in high school musicals and church, Charmaine Tam said.
Ms. Tam loved nature, and at one point set up a GoFundMe page when her terrier mix, Zeke, injured his paw. She was supported in her cancer fight by the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette, where she grew up, and Willow Creek North Shore.
In addition to her daughter Amelia and sister Charmaine, she is survived by her sister Christie and brothers Monty and Tim Tam, a niece, two nephews and several cousins.
Services have been held.