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Bernard Mayes, NPR's First Chairman, Founder Of Suicide Hotline, Dies

Bernard D. Mayes in 2006.
Wikimedia Commons
Bernard D. Mayes in 2006.

Bernard Mayes, the first chairman of the NPR board, died on Thursday in California.

Mayes was a true Renaissance man: He was born in England, studied at Cambridge University and became a high school teacher. Eventually, he went back to school and became an ordained Anglican priest. In 1958, he moved to the United States, where he worked as a journalist, a radio executive, and during his later years a university professor.

But perhaps one of his biggest accomplishments was something he started out of a small room in San Francisco.

As The San Francisco Chronicle recounts it, Mayes was the founder of the first suicide prevention hotline in the United States. He started by simply putting ads on buses that asked people, "Thinking of ending it all? Call Bruce."

The Chronicle goes on:

"Mayes, working under a pseudonym, curled up on the one couch wondering whether the phone would ring.

"It did ring once that first night. By the end of the week, there were 10 callers, and that phone hasn't stopped ringing for 50 years now. The one line in a basement room is now five lines in a downtown high-rise. Two hundred calls a month have become 200 calls a day to (415) 781-0500, handled by 100 volunteers and 10 paid staff. They all undergo weeks of intensive training to do what Mayes himself learned to do on that first call, with no training whatsoever: listen."

In the late '60s, Mayes began organizing the public broadcasting system in the United States. First, he became the founder of NPR member station KQED and when National Public Radio was founded, he became the network's first chairman.

Mayes signature is one of four on NPR's articles of incorporation, recorded on February 26, 1970.

KQED reports:

"Over the next decade, he was involved as an executive, board member, consultant or reporter for NPR, PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the BBC, Radio New Zealand, the Australian and Canadian broadcasting corporations and public radio stations across the United States. He lectured at Stanford's Institute for Mass Media from 1972-84 and joined the University of Virginia in 1991."

Throughout his whole life, Mayes also championed LGBT issues. In an obit written by his friends, they write:

"Bernard's autobiography, 'Escaping God's Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest,' received the Lambda Literary Award for Religion and Spirituality. In the book, Bernard revealed why he ultimately renounced the priesthood and religion, and described the interdependence, interaction and endless exchange within the universe as the 'Soup.' For Bernard, the interrelationship of all things necessitated a particular ethic that he whimsically dubbed 'Soupism.' For Bernard, Soupism was derived from the belief that love for others, egalitarian government, universal education and respect for the planet and all that live upon it are critical for the continued health, well-being and survival of the human species."

Mayes was 85-years-old.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.