On October 23, 2014, Bernard Mayes, multi-talented journalist, Episcopal priest, and community activist, passed away in San Francisco. He was the founding force behind the Suicide Prevention movement in America, launching in San Francisco the first of what would eventually become a network of over 500 community crisis centers. He went on to become a pioneer in public broadcasting as a founder of KQED and as chair of the founding board of National Public Radio (NPR). At his side at the end were his friends and former housemates, Will Scott and Matthew Chayt, reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXVI, Let me not to the marriage of true minds…
Mayes arrived in San Francisco in 1960 at the age of 31 as a correspondent for the BBC. Handsome, energetic, cultivated, and rebellious, he took on a massive and highly preventable tragedy that no one else would discuss — suicide. In a city that was known for the highest suicide rate in the western world, he founded a simple volunteer hotline using the code name “Bruce” and distributing matchbooks with the phone number in Tenderloin bars. He had a flair for publicity and was able to maintain constant visibility of the fledgling organization and its efforts to reach people who found themselves wanting to end their lives. He trained its first volunteers and went with them to secure the first office in the basement of a Tenderloin apartment building whose manager initially believed them to be an escort service.
By 1970, he was elected to chair the founding board of NPR, helping to organize public radio and television not only in San Francisco but also for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, then in its infancy. In 1984 he was invited by the University of Virginia to chair their Department of Rhetoric and Communication for which he organized the Program in Media Studies. Later, he was appointed an academic dean and received several awards for mentoring and advising.
He wrote many published articles and a selection of his lighter broadcast pieces, “This is Bernard Mayes in San Francisco,” even appeared in Australia. After his retirement in 1999, he published his autobiography, Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest, which in 2000 won the national Lambda Literary Award for religion and spirituality. He has scripted and recorded dramatic works for radio, including Homer’s Odyssey and award-winning audio of The Lord of the Rings, in which he played Gandalf.
Bernard never lost his concern for people considering suicide. For the final years of his life, he returned to San Francisco to live, consistently visiting to the agency he began fifty years earlier. He was a dedicated donor, leader, and historical legacy. Bernard celebrated his 85th birthday on October 10th at San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s “Heroes of Mental Health” Luncheon. He is survived by his many close friends, his former colleagues, and the unknown thousands of people who are alive today because of his work.
We are all better people having had Bernard Mayes in our lives. May he rest in peace.
Written by: Eve Meyer and Meghan Free-beck
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