There is an old black and white photo of a dapper young man, sleeves rolled, tie loosened, and hair slicked, listening intently to a caller on the phone; behind him, office workers read from a book titled Suicide. The man is Bernard Mayes [1929-2014], a gay Anglican priest from Britain, and founder of the San Francisco Suicide Prevention (SFSP) program.
Mayes isn’t on just any phone; he’s on the suicide hotline red rotary, the phone that has become an iconic symbol of SFSP. Founding the call-line in 1962 and working under the pseudonym “Bruce,” he would hand out flyers and place cardboard ads on Muni buses, saying, “Thinking of ending it all? Call Bruce, PR1-0450, San Francisco Suicide Prevention.” Then he’d return, curl up on the couch and wait, wondering whether the phone would ring.
Mr. Mayes had no training in suicide counseling; what he did have, was a desire to meet a need and an incredibly huge heart.
“I did feel that what was really needed was a compassionate ear, someone to talk to,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2012. “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.” (Whiting, 2012)
Today, the call-line is nearly 60 years old, and remains the oldest and one of the largest suicide prevention lines in the United States. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a dozen staff members and hundreds of volunteers answering calls come rain, wee hours of the night, or pandemic. Felton Institute proudly runs this program as one of its almost 60 programs agency wide.
In 1966, LOOK, a human interest and photojournalism magazine of the mid 20th century, ran an article in its August 23rd issue called, “Suicide, A New Attack Against an Old Killer.” He shared the August 23rd issue with Senator Bobby Kennedy, who made the cover, and with stories on geodesic domes and singer, Petula Clark. The original contact sheets from the photoshoot taken to capture the original featured image that appeared in the LOOK article portrayed Mayes as an active man: lifting weights, rowing, at the Golden Gate, teaching class, and at the SFSP offices.
Bernard Mayes was an important and influential figure in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area. Beginning in 1958 as a journalist for the BBC, then working at KPFA-FM public radio in Berkeley. In 1968 he helped organize the U.S. public broadcasting system and was a founder of KQED-FM public radio in San Francisco.
Mayes was also passionate about helping people improve their mental health, remaining an advocate for LGBT rights his entire life and writing his 2001 autobiography, “Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations.” In 2014, he was featured in an article from The Bay Area Reporter on the challenges facing LGBT seniors forced by failing health to move into assisted living.
Mayes is as much a part of Felton Institute’s history as anyone; it is an honor to add his story and legacy of compassion, caring and servitude to that of the heroes that make up this institution.
by Rachel Cohen
Reference: Whiting, S. (2012, April 28). Bernard Mayes to be honored as lifeline to suicidal. San Francisco Chronicle (https://www.sfgate.com/living/article/Bernard-Mayes-to-be-honored-as-lifeline-to-3516576.php#photo-2870602)
Douglas Jones, photographer, LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LOOK – Job 66-2676
Star, Jack (1966, August 23). “Suicide: A New Attack Against an Old Killer“. LOOK Magazine, Vol., 30, NO. 17, 60-64. LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-L9-66-2676-FF, #21
About Felton Institute: Founded in 1889, Felton Institute responds to human needs by providing cutting edge, evidence-based mental health and social services that transform lives. Felton Institute is a tax-exempt organization registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit under EIN 94-1156530.
Offering more than 50 acclaimed and honored programs that address homelessness, mental health, prenatal, adolescent, adult and senior needs, Felton Institute provides services in San Francisco, Alameda, San Mateo, Marin, and Monterey counties.
Felton is named for its social services pioneer and executive director Dr. Katharine “Kitty” Felton who was called the ”conscience of San Francisco” and was committed to ensuring that children and families in crisis have access to social services and resources in order to help them build upon their inherent strengths and develop self-sufficiency. www.felton.org