With the passing of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the Duke community has lost one of its most devoted and passionate members.
Semans, great-granddaughter of Washington Duke—the University’s namesake—died Wednesday in Duke Hospital at the age of 91. The philanthropist and Trustee emeritus passed away on a campus that will immortalize her memory with the series of standing reminders of all she contributed to it.
“She was larger than life, and she loved Duke in a way that was larger than life,” said Semans’ grandson Charles Lucas. “Duke became a part of her life very early on, and she made it not only a part of her life but our lives as well.”
Semans served on the Board of Trustees for 20 years beginning in 1961 and was a former chair of the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment. She worked throughout her life to promote education, the arts and human rights in Duke and Durham, serving as the city’s mayor pro tempore from 1953 to 1955. In the 1960s, Semans also helped found the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is the first state-backed arts conservatory in the nation.
And though Semans is recognized as a prominent University and local figure, Lucas recalled that as a grandmother, she was similarly known for her selflessness and an extraordinary capacity to love and do good, never missing a birthday or anniversary of those close to her.
Lucas, Law ’90 and chair of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, said it was Semans who inspired him to come to Duke and become involved in the school.
“Her enthusiasm, her love and her passion were so contagious it just made you want to be like her,” Lucas said. “If I can come close to her in any aspect of my life, my life will have been a success.”
Known as a friend to nearly everyone she met, Lucas noted his grandmother’s unyielding compassion and commitment to her work, family and the improvement of the human condition.
“Every life she touched was changed,” he said. “She will not only be missed by her family, who she had a very close relationship with, but she’ll be missed by everyone touched by her legacy.”
‘Our principal link’
Semans enrolled in Duke’s Woman’s College at 15 years old and graduated in 1939. The mother of seven was married twice—first in 1938 to Josiah Trent, a Duke medical student and eventual chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. Five years after Trent’s death in 1948, she married Dr. James Semans.
The daughter of Mary Duke Biddle and granddaughter of tobacco-giant Benjamin N. Duke, Semans supported the University through her mother’s organization, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation, among other initiatives. Semans also helped establish the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship in honor of her grandfather.
“She was our principal link to Duke’s founding generation, and she continued her family’s tradition of benevolence throughout her life,” wrote President Richard Brodhead in an email to the University Wednesday.
Board of Trustees Chair Richard Wagoner said Semans was a wonderful friend to all facets of the Duke community, particularly in her work with Duke Medicine, the city of Durham and the arts. Wagoner, the former CEO of General Motors Corp. and Trinity ’75, also noted Semans’ commitment to diversity and the promotion of equal opportunity.
“Mary was not only our ‘real life’ connection to Duke’s amazing history, [but] more important, she was a great contributor to today’s and tomorrow’s Duke,” Wagoner wrote in an email Wednesday. “And Mary did all this with a Duke mentality: a can-do attitude, a zest for life, a willingness to take on tough challenges—all while thoroughly enjoying life and having a little fun.”
Semans supported initiatives across the University, including the Josiah Charles Trent Collection of the History of Medicine, the Mary Duke Biddle Scholarship and a variety of other altruistic endeavors.
“Her passion and personal involvement in the everyday life of Duke Medicine has been a source of inspiration to everyone,” said Dr. Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs and CEO for Duke University Health System, in a release Wednesday. “She spoke often of the importance of humanity in the practice of medicine and effectively modeled her conviction through personal actions.”
Although Semans invested much of her time aiding Duke’s medical education, she maintained a passion for the arts. Semans and Dr. Semans played pivotal roles in the inception of the Duke University Museum, established in 1969, which evolved into the Nasher Museum of Art in 2005.
“We will miss her very much,” said Director of the Nasher Museum Kimerly Rorschach. “This is a very sad time because as an institution we literally would not be here without her.”
The couple was very passionate about the arts and wanted to introduce a culture of creativity to Duke campus, where they thought it had been lacking, she added.
“She always said that the arts were an integral part of life as they provide fulfillment and a means for communication,” Rorschach said. “It was important to her mother. She was raised in an atmosphere where arts were valued. It brings communities together, celebrates life and gives voice to feelings.”
A Cameron Crazie
As enduring as her dedication to Duke was her love for its basketball team.
Lucas said Semans rarely missed a game each spring, attending games in Cameron Indoor Stadium up until last year. And when she chose to watch the games on television instead, his grandmother would switch on every TV in her house, so she could walk from room to room without missing a single play.
“She absolutely could not stand it when they lost,” Lucas said. “She would go quiet and then she would want to talk about the whole game—about how they played defense... she would want to talk it all through and get it out of her system.”
Lucas also noted Semans’ relationship with close friend and colleague, men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who came to Duke in 1982—the same year Semans was named a Trustee emeritus to the Board.
“Those first couple of years were kind of rough, but she was a believer in [Krzyzewski] from the very beginning and made it very clear that she thought [former athletic director] Tom Butters needed to give him a chance. They had a long and fast friendship.”
Semans even watched the Blue Devils’ game against Florida State Saturday, though she was, needless to say, disappointed, Lucas said.
“She loved the basketball team so much—she was religious about it,” he said.
Preserving a legacy
Of all his grandmother’s notable work, Lucas said she would want her commitment to philanthropy to be a lasting lesson to the community. Semans’ work exemplified the notion that philanthropy is about more than donating resources—it is also about the motivations behind it.
“She believed that philanthropy is not just about giving money away,” he said. “She would say you have to be passionate about the philanthropy that you are involved in.”
Lucas also noted how important it was to his grandmother that the work of the Duke Endowment continue. The Duke Endowment grants gifts to universities throughout the South including Davidson College and Johnson C. Smith University. The Duke Endowment also supports rural United Methodist churches, children’s education and health care.
Duke’s leaders agree that Semans’ spirit and passion for life will live on.
“Mary Semans was more than the sum of her accomplishments,” Brodhead said. “She had a care for others and a belief in human possibility that made every encounter an inspiring event. All who experienced her grace, warmth, enthusiasm and can-do spirit will remember her for years to come.”
Wagoner noted that the Duke community will miss Semans’ greatly but said that the example she has set will be remembered forever.
A funeral service for Semans will be held Monday in the Duke Chapel at 2 p.m.