Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans shouldered the legacy of Duke’s founding family with remarkable grace, unwavering commitment and indiscriminate love.
Semans, the great-niece of Duke’s founder James Buchanan Duke, served on the University’s Board of Trustees from 1961 to 1981 and devoted her life to serving Duke, Durham and North Carolina. With an immense generosity and genuine humility, Semans believed in a real responsibility to continue what her family started decades earlier, said Semans’ youngest daughter Beth Semans Hubbard.
“Until the very end, she loved life, and she loved people. That’s what kept her young; that’s why she was so vital, and she had such drive,” Hubbard said. “She felt that indenture was critical to the outline of the processing of the University, and she took it very seriously and very literally.”
Semans died Wednesday at Duke Hospital at the age of 91.
“She was one of the great people in my life, and I loved her with all my heart,” said Anthony Drexel Duke, Semans’ first cousin and Trustee Emeritus.
A fervent supporter of the arts, medical education, equal opportunity and scholarship, Semans influenced all areas of the University and throughout the state. When Semans—who was at the time chair of the Charlotte-based Duke Endowment—saw that enrollment numbers at Duke were down for students from the Carolinas, she instituted the renowned Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship. Semans also helped create the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Nasher Museum of Art in 2005.
But valued more than her accomplishments was Semans’ thoughtful and humble spirit.
“Sometimes she would go and accept an award, and we’d find out by reading about it in the paper the next day,” Hubbard said. “We’d say, ‘Well, we would have been there,’ and she’d reply, ‘Now, there’s no reason to make a fuss over it.’”
Semans’ grandson Charles Lucas, a trustee of the Duke Endowment, chair of the UNC School of the Arts and Law ’90, noted that his grandmother often commissioned floral arrangements for delivery to any friend or family member who had just received an accolade or perhaps had a birthday.
“She wanted to take care of people,” Lucas said.
An energetic night owl and loyal fan of The Charlie Rose Show, Semans was known to call family members and inquire about Rose’s nightly guest or perhaps rehash the latest sports performance by her beloved Blue Devils.
“Whenever the phone rang after 10 o’clock at night, you’d know who it was,” Lucas said.
Hubbard noted her mother’s love for men’s basketball head coach Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the team. Semans never missed a game and preferred to listen rather than watch the games, switching on all five televisions in the house, so she could hear the game from room to room.
‘Godmother of Duke’
Semans’ top priority for the University was always excellence, Lucas said. Semans was especially proud of the international recognition that Duke, as both an academic institution and superior hospital system, had developed in recent years.
“She always felt like Duke needed to push itself further, and she was a catalyst for that,” he said.
Semans, whose favorite campus spots included the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, contributed to the University in countless ways, whether through her mother’s Mary Duke Biddle Foundation or in her instrumental role in recruiting former University President Terry Sanford in 1969.
“She inherited some traits from both grandfather Ben and her great-uncle James Buchanan Duke,” said Randolph Few Jr., Pratt ’82 and grandson of William Preston Few—the first president of Duke. “Ben was remarkably influential in the making of Duke University... and J.B. was much more of a great visionary—Mary had a little bit of both.”
Joel Fleishman, a former legal assistant to Sanford and professor of law and public policy sciences, noted Semans’ accessibility and open-mindedness as a Trustee.
“She’s the godmother of Duke for all purposes,” said Fleishman, who was Semans’ close friend for 50 years.
‘Patriot at heart’
Semans often acted as a bridge between the Duke and Durham communities, Lucas said, noting her roles as the first woman elected to Durham City Council and as mayor pro tempore from 1953 to 1955.
“Mother was absolutely dedicated to making that separation between Duke and Durham disappear in any way she could,” Hubbard said.
Her roles in public office were just two of the many ways Semans demonstrated her patriotism and commitment to public service.
“She was not in it for accolades for Mary Semans—she believed in public service to the community as the whole, not just Durham or North Carolina or Duke,” Lucas said. “She was a patriot at heart, and she kind of wore it on her sleeve.”
Even her neighbors felt at ease with her, including Few, who grew up a few hundred yards from Semans’ home.
“She was very approachable,” he said. “She used to drive around town, until just a few years ago, in an old Ford Taurus.”
Former Duke Endowment Chair Russell Robinson, Law ’56, said Semans will be remembered as an exceptionally loving person, who reached out to all, especially to those in need.
“I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say she’s one of the greatest people in the history of our state,” Robinson said.
Robinson and his wife, Sally, knew Semans as a dear friend for 50 years.
“Both of us loved her,” he said.
Strong and selfless
It was not uncommon for Semans to be the only woman in a room of 30 or so men, whether Trustees or politicians. But she had an ability to attract the best in people, said Thomas Kenan, trustee of the Duke Endowment and board member for the UNC School of the Arts. Kenan had known Semans for 40 years.
At 5 feet 2 inches, Semans was an undeniable presence, whose inner strength was derived from tribulation but likewise strong female role models, Hubbard said.
Hubbard noted the particular influence Semans’ mother, Mary Duke Biddle, had upon Semans’ development as a pioneer of the arts and a strong, independent woman. Biddle was the “unsung hero” of the Duke family who would not think twice about helping someone in need.
“My mother inherited every bit of that,” Hubbard said.
And when Semans joined her grandmother, Sarah P. Duke, in Durham at 14 years old, Semans learned from her how to grow up. As the third generation in a legacy of determined yet selfless women, Semans later imparted this strength upon her own daughters, Hubbard said.
‘A doctor’s wife’
Semans’ contributions and support of Duke Medicine matched her support of nearly every other aspect of the University.
“She was first and foremost a doctor’s wife,” Hubbard said.
In 1938, Semans married Dr. Josiah Trent, a Duke medical student and future surgeon and chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. After Trent died in 1948, Semans married Dr. James Semans, another Duke surgeon.
“The last time I saw Mary Semans... she was intent on hearing the story about my [immigrant] father,” said Chancellor Emeritus of Duke Medicine Dr. Ralph Snyderman, a close friend of the Semans. “Mary had heard that 4 to 5 times and asked me to please tell it to her again—that’s the kind of person she was.”
Snyderman noted this humble combination between her down-to-earth demeanor and famous, near American nobility, lineage.
“It was her paradoxical charm,” he said.
A compassionate legacy
One of Semans’ many talents was her ability to bring people together, whether in the public or private arena.
“She made me you feel like you were the only person in the room,” Hubbard said.
Kenan added that Semans’ deep-rooted passion for the arts was something she wanted to communicate to all.
“She was effervescent,” he said. “She just poured out good things—when you saw her she brightened up everything, you couldn’t help but smile when you saw her coming.”
And Semans’ philanthropy will certainly live on, as she was both a thoughtful and positive thinker, Duke said, noting her philanthropy nationwide.
“She got a great deal of enjoyment in life from being in a position of being able to do something,” Duke said. “I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss her.”