Mayes had a strange career path. He first taught high school, then was ordained as an Anglican priest who worked for the BBC and, after moving to the United States in 1958, worked as a priest and director of a New York University student house. He later transferred to the Diocese of California, where he served a parish near San Francisco. But that still wasn’t enough: in 1961 he founded the country’s first suicide prevention hotline, which he set up in a small room in San Francisco, and answered the calls himself. His number one instruction for himself, and the thousands of volunteers to follow: listen. “I did feel that what was really needed was a compassionate ear, someone to talk to,” he said years later. “It occurred to me that we had to have some kind of service which would offer unconditional listening, and that I would be this anonymous ear.” Yet Mayes wasn’t anti-suicide: “You want to kill yourself, kill yourself. You have every right to do so,” he said, but the people who call the hotline want help. “We don’t go around asking people if they are suicidal, see. They call us.” Mayes’ idea was so effective (San Francisco’s suicide rate dropped from 33 per 100,000 to 12.5), it was used as the model to set up similar hotlines across the country. He worked the night shift for 10 years before moving on. “The people who start things mustn’t stay too long,” he said, “because if you do stay too long, you will kill it by your own oppression.” Besides: he had other careers to try.
With his broadcasting experience, Mayes helped organize the Public Broadcasting Service, became the founding Chairman of the Board of National Public Radio, and founded public radio station KQED in San Francisco, where he worked as the station’s first General Manager. Meanwhile, he taught at Stanford’s Institute for Mass Media for 12 years. But he moved on again, appointed to the English faculty of the University of Virginia, where he also served as the assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, chair of the Department of Rhetoric and Communications Studies, and founder of the Program in Media Studies; he retired in 1999 as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1992, Mayes renounced religion and declared he was an atheist. Openly gay, he helped start the UVA’s on-campus gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organization, the Serpentine Society, to push for equality. In 2000, the Serpentine Society named the Bernard D. Mayes Award for Service and Leadership after him. In 2001 he published his autobiography, Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest, which received the national Lambda award for religion and spirituality. What was behind Mayes’ job hopping? It “took me to several different professions to find clues to a possible answer,” he said. The answer to what? “The search for meaning.” Mayes died in a San Francisco hospital on October 23, from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.