Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

First NPR Chairman
Bernard Mayes dies


Anthony Bernard Duncan Mayes. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Print this Page
Send to a Friend
Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on MySpace!

Anthony Bernard Duncan Mayes, a gay man who was the first chairman of National Public Radio and the founder of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, died October 23 at UCSF Parnassus Hospital. He was 85.

Mr. Mayes, who was known as Bernard, died after a brief illness, said his longtime friend and former housemate, Matthew Chayt. He had also been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and his search for an independent living facility was featured in the Bay Area Reporter in April.

Chayt recalled that he was 18 and a college freshman when he met Mr. Mayes, who was an inspiration and comfort to him when he was reeling from family turmoil.

"Years later, Bernard inadvertently introduced me to my future husband, then became a dear friend and roommate," Chayt said in an email. "He was dedicated to the cause of justice to the end, and on the last evening we spent together before his final illness, we discussed the candidates and initiatives on the ballot to help each other decide how to vote."

One of Mr. Mayes's most important roles in life was that of a broadcast journalist and entertainer. Beginning in 1958 he worked as a journalist for the BBC and other networks, interviewing film stars, astronauts, and other public figures. While attempting to report on the multi-racial Koinonia Farm community in Sumter County, Georgia, Mr. Mayes was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1968 Mr. Mayes helped organize the public broadcasting system in the United States, becoming first the founder of KQED-FM and executive vice president of KQED TV in San Francisco, then a co-founder and first working chairman of National Public Radio. Today, NPR attracts over 25 million listeners per week. Mr. Mayes then became a consultant for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in Washington, D.C., advising universities and communities across the country. Meanwhile, he continued his work as a journalist, covering such events as the aftermath of the Harvey Milk and George Moscone assassinations in 1978.

Mr. Mayes was also prolific in the arena of radio drama, contributing scripts and performances to projects including "Homer's Odyssey," "The Agamemnon of Aeschylus," and "Plato's Phaedo," each adapted from the original Greek; and "The Lord of the Rings," a 1979 radio series that he wrote and performed in as Gandalf. Mr. Mayes also received financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts for a dramatization of the life of Thomas Jefferson. He also recorded several books for Blackstone Audio Books and was often heard in "The Black Mass," Eric Bauersfeld's series of dramatic adaptations for Berkeley's FM station KPFA.


Helping others

In 1962, Mr. Mayes founded San Francisco Suicide Prevention. Indeed, Chayt said, Mr. Mayes 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.

Founding San Francisco Suicide Prevention would retain pride of place for Mr. Mayes among his many achievements, Chayt said. In a city that was known for the highest suicide rate in the western world, he started a simple volunteer hotline using the code name "Bruce" and distributed matchbooks with the phone number in Tenderloin bars. He had a newsman's 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 the organization's 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.

Outgoing gay state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who knew Mr. Mayes for many years, said he would be missed.

"I knew Bernie for nearly half a century," Ammiano said in a statement. "He was the kindest, wittiest, most loving man, who flourished despite the oppression and homophobia. He was, in my mind, a worker-priest. His commitment to the issue of suicide prevention was groundbreaking."

Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, told the B.A.R. that Mr. Mayes would regularly drop by the office to talk with the staff and meet the volunteers.

"He was not just our founder, he was our guiding light," Meyer said.

Meyer said that Mr. Mayes wanted the volunteers and staff to keep all possibilities in mind, and not just rest on what had been done.

"He was amazing that way," Meyer said.

Because he had Parkinson's and its attendant mobility issues, Meyer said that she would often call ahead to brief people if she and Mr. Mayes were meeting someone.

"I'd say he walks slowly but talks quickly," Meyer said.


Early life

Mr. Mayes was born in London on October 10, 1929, and would always remember enduring the horror of the London Blitz as a 10-year-old boy, according to Chayt. After completing a graduate degree in classical civilizations at Cambridge University in 1954, Mr. Mayes worked first as a high school teacher of Latin, Greek, and history. He then completed training at the influential College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, and became ordained as an Anglican priest.

Mr. Mayes emigrated to the United States in 1958 and became worker-priest and director of a student house attached to Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and New York University.

In 1960, Mr. Mayes moved to San Francisco, and held a small parish in the Diocese of California.

Having already come out years before, Mr. Mayes also organized a sexuality study center for the Episcopal Diocese of California that was dubbed the Parsonage. The Parsonage was awarded the Episcopal Jubilee citation and later evolved into the present-day Oasis organization. Thus, through the tumultuous 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in San Francisco, Mr. Mayes was an important voice for compassion and cross-cultural understanding.

Invited in 1984 to join the English faculty of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bernard took what would prove to be a 20-year break from California. Winning the respect of faculty and students alike, Mr. Mayes was appointed assistant dean in UVA's College of Arts and Sciences in 1991, and then chair of the Communications Department, finally founding the Media Studies Program. He was awarded the Sullivan/Harrison Award for mentoring and received a commendation by the University Seven Society. Continuing his LGBTQ activism, Mr. Mayes also co-founded the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual Faculty, Staff and Graduate Student Association at the University of Virginia, known as UVA Pride.

Chayt's husband, Will Scott, recalled meeting Mr. Mayes in 1998 while waiting tables at a gay-owned restaurant in Charlottesville during college.

"He asked me what my plans were, and I told him I was preparing to study abroad that fall in India, Tibet, and Nepal," Scott said in an email. "He immediately said, 'I must introduce you to the Dalai Lama's ambassador to the United States.' Sure enough, we met the following week for lunch with the prominent UVA Tibetan scholar, Jeffrey Hopkins. Over the years Bernard would introduce me to many amazing people, including my future husband, and he would challenge me often with philosophical and theological questions."

When Chayt and Scott moved to San Francisco, Mr. Mayes came with them.

On Mr. Mayes's retirement from UVA in 1999, the Serpentine Society, the University of Virginia's LGBTQ alumni association, began annually giving the Bernard Mayes Award to an alumna or alumnus who contributes positively to LGBTQ causes both within the university community and beyond.

In later years, ever curious and engaged, Mr. Mayes continued his research on the role of faith in society. He also found a new role as a voice for LGBTQ seniors, joining organizations and giving press interviews about the challenges LGBTQ elders face. In June 2014, the California Legislative LGBT Caucus honored him at the state Capitol in Sacramento.

Mr. Mayes's autobiography, Escaping God's Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest, received the Lambda Literary Award for religion and spirituality. In the book, Mr. Mayes revealed why he ultimately renounced the priesthood and religion, and described the interdependence, interaction and endless exchange within the universe as the "Soup." For Mr. Mayes, the interrelationship of all things necessitated a particular ethic that he whimsically dubbed "Soupism." For Mr. Mayes, 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.

Mr. Mayes is survived by his many close friends all over the world, who loved him dearly. He is also survived by his former colleagues, and the unknown thousands of people who are alive today because of his work.

Mr. Mayes's close friends invite those seeking to honor him to give a contribution in his memory to San Francisco Suicide Prevention, KQED, or the Serpentine Society. Celebrations of Mr. Mayes's life will be planned in California and Virginia later; interested people are invited to contact Matthew Chayt at for information.

Follow The Bay Area Reporter
facebook logo
facebook logo
Newsletter logo
Newsletter logo
ISSUU logo