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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 20:40 GMT
Obituary: The Reverend Chad Varah

Chad Varah
Chad Varah: Offered a listening ear to the desperate

The Reverend Chad Varah founded Samaritans with one telephone line and saw it grow into a world-wide organisation helping thousands of people to avoid the ultimate act of desperation.

He was never a conventional clergyman. His chief concern from the start was to help individuals rather than spreading the gospel.

Born in Barton-upon-Humber, where his father was the vicar at St Chad's, the local Anglican church, Chad Varah was educated at Oxford before, he said, being "press-ganged" into the life of a priest.

Promise

His first task as an assistant curate in Lincoln in 1935 determined the path he would follow.

Standing in at the funeral of a 14-year-old girl, he asked the undertaker why the girl was being buried in unconsecrated ground, and was told she had killed herself because she had mistaken menstruation for a serious disease.

A smile of success: Chad Varah
Chad Varah wanted volunteers with humility
Dr Varah recalled his reaction: "I stood at the end of the grave and I said, little girl, I never knew you, but I promise you that you have changed my life and I shall teach children about sex."

Dr Varah kept his promise, although the explicit nature of his advice to children and young couples scandalised many people in the Church.

The need for advice on sexual taboos was reinforced by the response to an article he wrote in Picture Post on the joys of sex, with 250 people writing the next day, asking for help.

Samaritans' rapid growth

As vicar of St Paul's, at Clapham in south London, he realised that a significant number of people coming to see him were talking of suicide. He thought a special telephone line might help people in distress, but there were many demands on his time.

He was a father of five, including triplet sons, he wrote strip-cartoons for Eagle and Girl comics and was the scientific consultant for the Eagle hero, Dan Dare.

I would not have anyone prudish or preachy because the prudish want to sit in judgement
Chad Varah

But the idea of a help line became a reality when he became rector of St Stephen Walbrook, a church in the City of London whose only parishioner was the Lord Mayor.

Samaritans grew rapidly, complemented by a dramatic fall in the suicide rate, and its many branches in Britain and around the world now handle millions of calls every year.

Chad Varah always insisted that it should not be a religious organisation.

At odds with management

In his autobiography, Before I Die Again - he believes in reincarnation - he says: "Church people were all too often narrow-minded, censorious, judgmental, intolerant, conventional."

Retiring from Samaritans in 1986, Chad Varah's work has received widespread recognition - he was made a Companion of Honour in 2000.

A Samaritan at work
A Samaritan at work
His wife, Susan, who died in 1993, also distinguished herself as a president of the Mothers' Union.

Sadly, Chad Varah had been at odds with Samaritans' management council for several years because he felt it had betrayed its original principles.

He felt the job of volunteers was to listen, without talking about themselves.

"This is a rare quality," he said. "They are in fact people who cannot bring themselves to pass by on the other side when somebody's needing them."

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