Bernard Mayes, founder of first suicide hotline, dies at 85


All things considered, Bernard Mayes had done most of them.

He was the first board chairman of National Public Radio. He was a journalist, a gay rights activist, a university dean, a classics scholar who translated plays from the Greek, and an Anglican priest who became an assertive and sardonic nonbeliever. He was the voice of Gandalf on a radio adaptation of “Lord of the Rings,” and he provided comfortingly elegant British narration for dozens of audio books.

And in 1962, he founded America’s first suicide hotline — a service he conceived when, as a BBC correspondent, he filed dispatches about despairing people in his adopted hometown of San Francisco killing themselves at three times the national rate.

“I felt obliged to do something constructive about what I had discovered,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest.” “Broadcasting can be corrupting, making those who talk or show themselves to millions think they are far more important than they really are. At the same time, constant interviews with Big Achievers can also erode one’s self respect by making one feel like a parasite.”


Mayes, whose volunteer-staffed hotline was greeted with skepticism by mental health professionals but became a model for hundreds of other hotlines across the U.S., died on Oct. 23 at a San Francisco hospital. He was 85.

Mayes had Parkinson’s disease, according to KQED, the San Francisco radio station of which he was the first general manager.

Though he wrote that he was never suicidal himself, he was profoundly affected by the death of his London school’s talented and charismatic headmaster.

“Long after I had left, he became increasingly tormented by frustrated emotion and the guilt laid upon him, as upon all gay people at that time, and he hanged himself from the banisters in his house,” Mayes wrote.

“His suicide and the suffering that it represented, multiplied by myriad others, affected the remainder of my life, eventually determining its direction and focusing much of my energy on the need to help the world understand.”

A handsome man with a craggy face and, in his later years, a shock of white hair, Mayes was an upbeat companion, his longtime friend Sandy Snyder said in an interview.


Mayes, who presided over the marriage of Snyder and her spouse, Joyce Dudek, knew lengthy passages from Shakespeare, Plato and J.R.R. Tolkien. At restaurants, he “would break into soliloquies in all kinds of accents — redneck accents, everything,” recalled Snyder, a medical center lab manager at the University of Virginia, where Mayes taught for two decades. He’d sometimes spend the rest of the meal in character, to the amusement of servers.

“In his deepest heart of hearts,” Snyder said, “he was an actor.”

Born in London on Oct. 10, 1929, Anthony Bernard Duncan Mayes was the son of a telephone operator and a watercolorist who illustrated travel brochures for British Railways.

After serving in the postwar British army, Mayes went to Cambridge, where he led the university’s rowing team to the regatta at Henley and, in 1954, graduated with honors in ancient languages and history. At Cambridge, he fell in love with a man who, he later said, “seduced me into joining the church.”

After teaching high school Latin and Greek for a short while, he signed on at a parish in London and did a little work for the BBC, which urged him to file reports from the United States when he moved to a New York City parish in 1958.

After settling in San Francisco in 1960, he did colorful reports on California and the West, and worked part time in local radio. In a basement room in the city’s seedy Tenderloin district, he founded San Francisco Suicide Prevention, spreading word about the service on matchbooks and in bus ads with a phone number and the headline: “Thinking of ending it all?”

“It occurred to me that we had to have some kind of service which would offer unconditional listening,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012, “and that I would be this anonymous ear.”

In 1969, Mayes was working at KXKX-FM, a radio station owned by the San Francisco Theological Seminary. When it was purchased by KQED, then strictly a public TV station, Mayes was made the new radio outlet’s general manager.

“He was worldly, intelligent, sophisticated and, with his roots as an Anglican priest, deeply compassionate,” KQED President John Boland told The Times.

Mayes also became the first board chairman of a new network called National Public Radio. His signature is one of four on NPR’s articles of incorporation.

Over the years, Mayes consulted for public broadcasting organizations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand as well as with many U.S. radio stations, including KCRW in Santa Monica.

“All Things Considered,” one of NPR’s flagship programs, is a “national treasure,” he said.

While immersed in public radio, Mayes lectured at Stanford University, and, in 1984, was offered a teaching job at the University of Virginia. He stayed until his retirement in 1999, becoming chairman of the department of rhetoric and communications studies as well as a dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In 2007, Mayes moved to San Francisco with friends — two men whose marriage he had conducted. As Mayes’ health problems deepened, he moved to an assisted living facility.

He had long since dropped his faith. Souls do not exist, he proclaimed. Prayer is futile. Religion “excluded half of humanity and decimated the other half,” he said, but “its narrow views … were mere peccadilloes compared with the inherent falsity of its basic claim to explain existence.”

But he was enthusiastic about “soup-ism” — a belief that every element in the endless, timeless universe is as interdependent as the ingredients in a good minestrone.

He wrote a manifesto about it in 2010.
Twitter: @schawkins