Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a respected civic and philanthropic leader, died today at Duke Hospital, in Durham, N.C. She was 91. The cause of death was not announced.
She spent her life supporting education, children’s services, health care and the arts, and her work shaped significant programs and institutions. “My feeling is that we’re all here for each other,” she once told a reporter. “I take very seriously this business of treating your neighbor as yourself.”
Although she wasn’t born in the South, she grew up in a family of industrialists and philanthropists with deep ties to the region. Her grandfather, Benjamin Newton Duke, his brother, James B. Duke, and their father, Washington Duke, were involved in many business ventures, the most significant of which were the American Tobacco Company and Duke Power Company, now Duke Energy Corporation. Over the years, they were the chief benefactors of Trinity College in Durham, which later became Duke University. In 1924, James B. Duke established The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, one of the largest private foundations in the country and the largest foundation in the Southeast.
Semans became a trustee of The Duke Endowment in 1957 when she took her great aunt’s place on the board, and she served as its first female chairman from 1982-2001. She marked her 50th year on the board in 2007.
Neil Williams, the endowment’s board chairman, said her goal was to make life better for others. “Mary built on the philanthropic legacy of her family,” he said. “Through the many hours she devoted to philanthropy and the causes she supported, her work touched countless people over the years. Her focus was always on people.”
She often supported staff members and friends with personal notes, boxes of chocolates and flowers. “Mary was a very special person who treated people with true compassion,” said Russell Robinson, a Charlotte attorney who succeeded her as board chairman. “It was rare that she didn’t step in and find a way to help. She dedicated herself to service, and her graciousness inspired us all.”
Semans was born in New York City. Her parents were Mary Duke Biddle, the only daughter of Benjamin Duke, and Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr., a general in the United States Army. Her mother was a noted philanthropist who carried on the family’s support of Duke University and her father held several high-level government posts, including Ambassador to Exiled Countries during World War II and Ambassador to Spain.
Semans spent her childhood in Manhattan. She attended the Hewitt School in New York and then, at the age of 15, when her grandmother, Sarah P. Duke, was living in Durham, she enrolled in the Woman’s College at Duke University. In a Duke Magazine article in 1987, Semans credited Dean Alice Baldwin with challenging young students to advocate for social justice. “She told us what to fight for,” Semans said.
She married Josiah Trent, a surgical intern who would become the chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. The couple shared a passion for rare books, including books about the history of medicine and many by and about Walt Whitman. Dr. Trent died after 10 years of marriage.
In 1951, as a young widow and mother of four girls, she was the first woman elected to the Durham City Council, and she served as mayor pro-tem from 1953-55. While in office, she focused on civil rights, affordable housing, cultural enrichment opportunities, and humane medical care.
In 1953, she married James H. Semans, a Duke University surgeon and urologist. In their 52 years of marriage, they had three children.
Semans, along with her husband, devoted herself to numerous arts and charitable causes. In the 1960s, they helped lead the establishment of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the nation’s first state-supported conservatory for the arts. Mrs. Semans served as a Trustee of the school for more than 20 years and continued on as an honorary member of the board.
She also served on the board of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, established by her mother to support arts, educational and charitable initiatives in North Carolina and New York City.
In 1971, the couple received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, for their distinguished contributions to the fine arts. “They personify the best leadership of their era,” the citation read. The couple also received the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews “for distinguished service in the field of human relations.”
Dr. Semans died in 2005 at age 94.
Semans served as a trustee and advisor to dozens of institutions, including the Executive Mansion Fine Arts Committee, which was charged with restoring and preserving the North Carolina Governor’s residence; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the North Carolina Symphony; the North Carolina Center for World Languages and Cultures; the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University; and the National Humanities Center.
She served as a Duke University Trustee for 20 years, and was instrumental in establishing the Duke University Museum of Art, which became the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The museum’s Great Hall bears her name.
“Mary Semans occupied a unique place in the life of this university,” said Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead. “She was our principal link to Duke’s founding generation and continued her family’s tradition of benevolence throughout her life. She supported every good thing at this university, and she was a powerful force for good in Durham and the Carolinas. Above all, she had a generosity toward others and belief in human possibility that made every encounter an inspiring event. Duke mourns the passing of one of its greatest friends.”
Semans received many other honors and awards including, among others, the National Governors Association Distinguished Service Award in 1995 for her support of the arts; a Citation for Distinguished Public Service presented by North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry; the Humanitarian Freedom Award presented by the Durham Chapter of Hadassah; and the North Carolina Philanthropy Award.
Duke University awarded her an honorary degree in 1983 and, in 1986, one of its first two University Medals for Distinguished Meritorious Service. Her other honorary degrees came from Campbell University, Davidson College, Elon University, Furman University, N.C. Central University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, Pfeiffer University, Shaw University and UNC Chapel Hill.
She received the Meritorious Service Award from the North Carolina Hospital Association in 2006 and in 2009 she was inducted into the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame.