Remembering Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

Jan 26, 2012

A well-respected civic and philanthropic leader died yesterday in Durham.  Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was the great grand-daughter of Washington Duke - for which Duke University is named.   Family ties also include The American Tobacco Company and what is known today as Duke Energy.  Semans will be remembered for her role in growing the arts in North Carolina, preserving health care for others and her fight for equality for women and African Americans.

Leoneda Inge:  Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was her charming self in an interview on public television in 2008.  The petite woman with passion and grit sat at a table with her double first cousin Anthony Drexel Duke while being interviewed by Charlie Rose.

Charlie Rose:  You were there at the inaugural ceremony.

Anthony Drexel Duke:  I was indeed.

Charlie Rose:  For Duke University, in 1924. That makes you 90 now.

Anthony Drexel Duke:  That’s right.

Charlie Rose:  And Mary’s 88.

Mary Semans:  That’s right.

Charlie Rose:  What is it in the water down there. What is it.  You two look great!

Anthony Drexel Duke:  I hesitate to think.

Mary Semans:  Thank you, I think we just had fun doing what we’re doing.

And family and friends say Mary Semans had a fun-filled and rewarding life.  Semans was born in 1920 and was raised in New York City.  When she was 15-years-old, she moved to Durham at the request of her grandmother, Sarah P. Duke.

Mary Semans:  My mother was very ill in New York. She didn’t seem to feel that I should be in a kind of sick room atmosphere. So she said, come live with me and go to Duke, if you can get in.

Semans got in, completed her studies and then married surgical intern, Dr. Josiah Trent. Semans’ husband died 10 years later.  A widow with four daughters, Semans followed in the civic and philanthropic path of her parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents.  In 1951, Semans was the first woman elected to the Durham City Council.  Dr. Jean Spaulding is ombudsperson for the Duke University Medical School and a trustee of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte. Spaulding served with Semans. She says there is no way to count the number of people touched by Semans.

Jean Spaulding:  Because she chaired the board of the Duke Endowment for so long, all of the funding that was given to hospitals, to orphanages, to rural churches for the purposes of health care and education. All of the individuals who benefited from those investments from the endowment I think would have to thank Mary Semans personally.

Semans also spent a great deal of her life fighting for civil rights, affordable housing and women’s rights.

Jean Spaulding:  She leaves, I think a footprint that can’t really be filled.
In 1953, Semans married Duke University Surgeon James Semans. Together they forged an artful path by helping to lead the establishment of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Semans served as a trustee for more than 20 years.

Leoneda Inge:  Wow this is big. Where are we?

Kim Rorschach:  We are standing in the Mary DBT Semans Great Hall of the NAsher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Kim Rorschach is the Mary DBT and James H. Semans director of the Nasher Museum of Art. This great space at the Nasher is one of the last marks Semans left before her death. She worked tirelessly for years to establish the Duke University Museum of Art in the late 1960s, which today stands as the Nasher.  The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, named for Semans' mother, awarded one of its largest single gifts, one million dollars to the Nasher.

Kim Rorschach:  She served as a bridge between Duke and Durham and you know, she was the fountain of all wisdom. And it’s just hard to believe that she’s not going to be there for all of us.

The Duke family could say the same thing. Charlie Lucas is Semans’ oldest grand-child. He had the opportunity to work with her as a trustee of The Duke Endowment.

Charlie Lucas:  She was a happy person she was passionate about everything she did. And that passion and that enthusiasm was contagious. And when you were around her you, you not only loved her, you loved what you were doing.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans is survived by her seven children, 16 grand-children and 29 great-grandchildren. Her funeral service will be held Monday afternoon at Duke Chapel.