MERRILLVILLE | Tom Bainbridge's 66th birthday was Jan. 14.
This one meant a little more than most.
"I feel very fortunate I'm still doing the things I love to do," the Merrillville man said, "and doing the things I feel are important for the youth and community."
Late last summer, Bainbridge felt a disturbing lump in his neck.
"It was something that was bothering me, so I went and got it checked out," Bainbridge said.
After numerous scans, Bainbridge was diagnosed with squamous-cell carcinoma, which formed on his tongue.
"It was a soft-tissue cancer, that's why it was hard to detect," Bainbridge said. "At first they thought it was lymphoma, and I thought 'there goes my singing career.'"
Shortly after diagnosis, Bainbridge informed the players and coaches of the Region Rockers, the softball team he manages.
"I had to be straight-up with them. We always ask our players to be straight-up with us," said Bainbridge, whose granddaughter, Haley Dugan, is on the team. "You try to set a good example, even during hard times. I told them I wasn't going any where and I wasn't going to quit on them."
The Rockers — a young 14U team — went on to win a fall tournament in Munster for their first title.
"It's so like Tom to turn this into a teaching moment for his team," said Lowell athletic director Patti McCormack, a longtime friend and associate of Bainbridge. "The prime objective of a coach is to take the fear and uncertainly out of their players, and make them confident and comfortable enough to where they can perform well on the field, and off.
"Just seeing that Tom hasn't stopped or slowed down is an inspiration to us all."
A former college basketball and baseball coach who has remained involved in youth sports, Bainbridge took over the Rockers last year — his first foray into softball — due to an illness in the former manager's family. Even away from the athletics, Bainbridge will deliver a pep talk whenever needed.
"You've got to have the right attitude when you go into (chemotherapy) treatments, but it can be hard and even I felt sorry for myself before slapping myself out of it," Bainbridge said. "You see some people walk in with their heads down, and my first reaction as a coach is to try to help bring their spirits up.
"One day there was a woman who was getting treatment, and she was angry with her husband because she thought he was clueless about what she was going through. I had to go up to her and say, 'You know, they're the ones who are really suffering ... our spouses, our children, our loved ones. For the most part, we know what's happening to us. We know what needs to be down, but they don't. It's out of their control. I could only imagine how helpless my wife (Lynn) feels. That's why we need to be there for them'."
Ever since retiring from AT&T, Bainbridge has been a ubiquitous mover-and-shaker. He has served on as many as nine boards and commissions including the Merrillville School Board (current vice-president and former president) and the Oxford (England) Round Table, an international consortium of educators who meet to exchange ideas.
"The only thing I had to step down from is the Hobart Redevelopment Commission," said Bainbridge, who still serves on the Lake County Redevelopment Commission. "They meet in the morning at the same time I have my treatments."
Bainbridge said the operation to remove the cancer went well, and chemotherapy hasn't been as bad as he thought.
"But the radiation treatments are tough," he said. "They leave the roof of your mouth raw and your throat sore.
"I can't make saliva, so I've got to eat little bits of food with water to wash it down. And it has to be soft food. Even small bits of toast are too rough."
Bainbridge hopes to perform the national anthem again. He has sung it 44 times before White Sox games. His last performance was at a RailCats game at U.S. Steel Yard just before he started treatment.
"The most important thing about singing the national anthem is hitting the appropriate note at the end," Bainbridge said of the "home of the brave" conclusion.
"With my military background, I know 'brave' can be interpreted different ways," Bainbridge said. "You can be brave but humble, respectful of your mortality and even of your enemy who may be as brave and determined as you are.
"Or brave can be bold, of knowing what needs to be done and the willingness to do it. When you're singing the national anthem, you try to feel the right vibe from the crowd when deciding whether to end it on a humble note or a bold note."
So how did you end your last performance?
"On a bold note," Bainbridge said. "That's how I'm going to fight this, and from all the emails, phone calls, messages and visits I've received, I know I have a large army backing me up.
"Cancer is not going to kill me. Only stopping the things I normally do will do that."