Skip to main content

The Pioneer

Remembering Bernard Duncan Mayes

Bernard Mayes had a long list of notable achievements before he even came to UVA: He’d served as an Anglican priest, created the country’s first suicide-prevention hotline and was at the forefront of launching National Public Radio.

But on Grounds, where he taught media studies from 1984 to 1999, Mayes is perhaps best remembered as a Cambridge gentleman in a professorial tweed jacket who broke down barriers for gay students and colleagues alike.

At Brown College on Monroe Hill, where Mayes lived among students in a faculty apartment for several years, he made sure no one was alone during the holidays. “There would be people left behind, students who couldn’t go back to Taiwan or the Middle East or wherever they were from,” says Carl Trindle, professor emeritus of chemistry and longtime administrator of Brown College. “He would provide them with Thanksgiving dinner. He would cook turkeys with their help.”

Mayes, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died last fall in San Francisco. He was 85.

A native of London, Mayes first came to the U.S. as a priest, but also worked as a journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation. After he moved from New York to San Francisco, he felt something had to be done about that city’s high suicide rate and came up with the idea of a hotline. In 1961 he set up a red telephone in a basement room—and established a resource that would become a model used across the country.

In 1984, after he’d taught at Stanford for 10 summers, UVA invited Mayes to be a guest lecturer. He decided to stay in Charlottesville, over time becoming an assistant dean and chair of the since-disbanded rhetoric and communication studies department. He tried for years to get the administration to support the idea of a department of media studies, and laid the groundwork for what eventually developed after he left.

In August 1995, assigned as his faculty adviser, Mayes first met an Echols Scholar named Matt Chayt. A couple of days after their initial meeting, Chayt, then 18, went to a welcoming reception for gay and lesbian students.

He was pleasantly surprised to see Mayes there as well. “I was just really happy that this person who had all this remarkable expertise would have a personal background in common with me,” Chayt (Col ’99) recalls. As time went on, Chayt and his husband, Will Scott, would became friends with Mayes, eventually caring for him in the home the three shared in San Francisco.

Despite the challenges of the time, Mayes never tried to hide his sexuality. “He was a very openly gay man—and proud of his gay identity,” says Charlotte Patterson, a professor of psychology who partnered with Mayes to start the first group for gay and lesbian UVA faculty and staff members. “He would be happy to tell you about his first husband, who was a drag queen. That had a certain shock value at the time at UVA He enjoyed that, I think, and he also educated a lot of people in telling his stories.”

In addition to organizing the faculty group, Mayes led efforts to fight homophobia and advance gay rights at the University. He initiated a drive to include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination clause of the College of Arts & Sciences’ policies and helped found the Queer Virginia Alumni Network, a gay and lesbian alumni group, later renamed the  Serpentine Society. In 1999 the Serpentine Society created an award in Mayes’ name for service to the LGBT community.

Today, UVA has a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Center, which operates under the Office of the Dean of Students and promotes awareness and inclusion. “Times have definitely changed,” Patterson says. “Bernard was here at the start of these changes, and he was not afraid.”

Indeed, many close friends remember Mayes as someone who was true to himself and didn’t fret about what others thought of him.

“He had a San Francisco attitude: ‘This is the way it is. You’ve got to get used to it,’” says Wayne Terwilliger (Grad ’75), a close friend for 30 years.

Terwilliger, assistant director of the UVA Bookstore, helped organize a launch of Mayes’ 2001 memoir, Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest, which the University of Virginia Press published.

In it, Mayes described parental feelings for the undergraduates who lived alongside him: “The sense of what one’s students might or might not one day become is ever present,” he wrote. “They told me of their hopes and confessed their fears and conceits. They became precious to me and once, when writing my diary of the time, I wept at what I was both enjoying and what I may have missed (until a visit to a married former student’s home, beset with screaming kids, put the record straight).”

Mayes had no immediate survivors, and although he eventually broke from the priesthood and renounced religion, he continued to minister in other ways—presiding, for example, at the 1992 wedding of Professor Trindle and his wife, Barbara Body, and counseling any student who came to him with a question or problem.

“Maybe his best work was done out of the public eye,” says Trindle. “He was a faithful counselor and friend to all those who felt a little out of place.”

A Life Remembered

1937—Bernard Mayes with his parents
1963—On the red telephone at the offices of the San Francisco Suicide Prevention Center
1988—At the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of America, Detroit, Michigan
1993—March on Washington
1990s—Speaking at a UVA event; Carl Trindle in background
1990s—Mayes at a UVA graduation
2001—Mayes’ memoir published by University of Virginia Press
2009—Presenting Serpentine Society award
2014—Mayes with Will Scott and Matt Chayt
Photos Courtesy Douglas Jones for Look Magazine, Library of Congress; Sandy Snyder; Jane McDonald; Dan Stern; The Serpentine Society and the University of Virginia Press