Mr. Mayes, shown here in Canterbury, England, died Oct. 23 at 85. (Photo by Matt Chayt)

“Thinking of ending it all?” asked the placards that first appeared aboard San Francisco city buses in the early 1960s. “Call Bruce, PR1-0450, San Francisco Suicide Prevention.”

The first call for Bruce — a pseudonym — went to a hotline established by Bernard Mayes, an Anglican priest and BBC correspondent who, with a few volunteers, had rented an apartment in the Tenderloin district as their headquarters and settled in to await requests for help. The operation, still in existence more than five decades later, is reported to have been the first suicide hotline in the United States.

Mr. Mayes, who also was the founding chairman of National Public Radio, a dean at the University of Virginia and a gay rights advocate, died Oct. 23 at a hospital in San Francisco. He was 85 and had sepsis, said his executor, Matt Chayt.

Mr. Mayes had no schooling in psychology or counseling when he started San Francisco Suicide Prevention, which today has 12 full-time employees and 100 volunteers. Born in England, he had settled in the United States in the late 1950s and, in addition to his religious work, reported for the BBC on U.S. news and the curiosities of life in America.

At the time, Mr. Mayes wrote years later in a memoir, San Francisco and what was then West Berlin were afflicted by disturbingly high suicide rates.

“Some researchers argued that like West Berlin in those days, isolated and surrounded by a hostile East Germany, San Francisco was also an island,” Mr. Mayes wrote. “That those who came there initially hoped for a happier, more successful life, or at least rescue from whatever troubles had beset them elsewhere, but had been disappointed.”

Mr. Mayes said that he hoped to provide a “compassionate ear” through the telephone line. “It occurred to me,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2012 interview, “that we had to have some kind of service which would offer unconditional listening, and that I would be this anonymous ear.”

Looking for somewhere to house the operation, Mr. Mayes described his plan to a prospective landlord. The man stretched out his arms, revealing scars on his wrists. He gave Mr. Mayes a 50 percent discount, the Chronicle reported.

In addition to advertising the hotline in buses, Mr. Mayes and other early volunteers went to bars distributing matchbooks with the phone number. The night the line opened, one call came in. By the end of the month, there had been 30. Today, the organization reports almost 200 calls per day.

Anthony Bernard Duncan Mayes was born Oct. 10, 1929, in London. His father was an artist, and his mother was a telephone operator. “Bernie” Mayes attended a school whose headmaster would commit suicide years later.

“Long after I had left, he became increasingly tormented by frustrated emotion and the guilt laid upon him as upon all gay people at that time, and he hanged himself from the banisters in his home,” Mr. Mayes wrote in his memoir, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “His suicide and the suffering that it represented, multiplied by myriad others, affected the remainder of my life, eventually determining its direction and focusing much of my energy on the need to help the world understand.”

After army service, Mr. Mayes graduated from the University of Cambridge, where he studied ancient languages and history. He worked as a high school teacher and was ordained into the Anglican church before settling in the United States.

Mr. Mayes was active in public broadcasting and became the founding general manager of a KQED radio station in Northern California, a position that helped lead to his selection as founding chairman of NPR when it was incorporated in 1970. In addition to his radio news work, he portrayed Gandalf in an audio recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Mayes was associated with the University of Virginia, where he was chairman of the rhetoric and communications department and later a dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. He helped found a support group for gay students and faculty members.

His memoir, “Escaping God’s Closet: The Revelations of a Queer Priest,” was published in 2001, about a decade after Mr. Mayes left the Anglican church, according to Chayt. Mr. Mayes had no known immediate survivors.

He told the Chronicle that people who wished to take their lives had “every right to do so.” But the hotline was there for anyone who wanted help.

“We don’t go around asking people if they are suicidal,” he remarked. “They call us. . . . It almost worked by magic.”