By Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle
The first suicide hotline in the United States consisted of one man with one phone in one room in San Francisco.
The man was Bernard Mayes, and he’d placed cardboard ads on Muni buses: “Thinking of ending it all? Call Bruce, PR1-0450, San Francisco Suicide Prevention.” Then 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.
“I did feel that what was really needed was a compassionate ear, someone to talk to,” recalls Mayes, 82, on a recent morning in his Bernal Heights row home. “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.”
This simple idea has been emulated in 500 cities in all 50 states. The 50th anniversary of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, or SFSP, will be celebrated in a May 1 gala at the St. Regis San Francisco. Former Mayor Willie Brown is the master of ceremonies, and the keynote speaker is Brian Copeland, on a night off from “The Waiting Period,” his acclaimed one-man show at the Marsh about buying a gun to do himself in.
There will be drama and dark comedy in their speeches, and even more if Mayes opens up in his own remarks, because there is way more to his story than a man with an ear.
He was also a man with a voice. Broadcasting from San Francisco, he was known across Great Britain for the radio reports he’d deliver in elegant English diction over BBC radio. His sign-off was “This is Bernard Mayes in San Francisco,” which also became the name of his 1985 book of oddities with headlines such as “Mistresses Anonymous,” “Rent-A-Wife,” and “Doomsday Club.”
Mayes had a Londoner’s handle on San Francisco quirkiness, but that is not what brought him here. He was also an ordained Episcopal priest who had read that San Francisco was a magnet for the suicidal, second only to walled-in West Berlin. Mayes decided that his calling was to set up an all-night phone-in service for a flock that had nowhere else to turn.