“Thinking of ending it all?” asked the placards that first appeared aboard San Francisco city buses in the early 1960s. “Call Bruce, PR1-0450, San Francisco Suicide Prevention.”

The first call for Bruce – a pseudonym – went to a hotline established by Bernard Mayes, an Anglican priest and BBC correspondent who, with a few volunteers, had rented an apartment in the Tenderloin district as a headquarters and settled in to await requests for help. The operation, still in existence more than five decades later, is reported to have been the first suicide hotline in the United States.

Mayes, who also was the founding chairman of National Public Radio, a dean at the University of Virginia and a gay rights advocate, died Oct. 23 at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 85 and had sepsis, said his executor, Matt Chayt.

Born in England, Mayes settled in the United States in the late 1950s and, in addition to his religious work, reported for the BBC on U.S. news.

At the time, Mayes wrote years later in a memoir, San Francisco and what was then West Berlin were afflicted by disturbingly high suicide rates.

Mayes said that he hoped to provide a “compassionate ear” through the telephone line. “It occurred to me,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2012 interview, “that we had to have some kind of service which would offer unconditional listening, and that I would be this anonymous ear.”

In addition to advertising the hotline in buses, Mayes and other early volunteers went to bars distributing matchbooks with the phone number. The night the line opened, one call came in. By the end of the month, there had been 30. Today, the organization reports almost 200 calls per day.

Anthony Bernard Duncan Mayes was born Oct. 10, 1929, in London. His father was an artist, and his mother was a telephone operator. “Bernie” Mayes attended a school whose headmaster would commit suicide years later. “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 home,” Mayes wrote in his memoir, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “His suicide and the suffering that it represented, multiplied by myriad others, affected the remainder of my life.”

After army service, Mayes graduated from the University of Cambridge, where he studied ancient languages and history. He worked as a high school teacher and was ordained into the Anglican church.

Mayes was active in public broadcasting and became the founding general manager of a KQED radio station in Northern California, a position that helped lead to his selection as founding chairman of NPR when it was incorporated in 1970.

His memoir, “Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest,” was published in 2001, about a decade after Mayes left the Anglican church, according to Chayt.

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