[Credit: John Sanden]
[Credit: John Sanden]

A Remarkable Life

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans remembered for her career of service.
April 1, 2012

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans ’39, Hon. ’83—lifelong philanthropist, civic leader, humanitarian, and great-granddaughter of university namesake Washington Duke—died January 25 at the age of ninety-one. A service in Duke Chapel the following Monday was standing-room daughter of Benjamin Duke, and Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Jr., a general in the U.S. Army who later served as ambassador to Poland and Spain. Through her parents, Semans was introduced to the only, as family and friends paid tribute to the remarkable arc of Semans’ life and her indelible legacy of service. The diversity of backgrounds of those present—university leaders, state and local politicians, community activists, artists, students, faculty members, alumni—was a testament to her far-reaching influence.

Semans was born in New York to Mary Lillian Duke, the only the arts, the importance of educational opportunities, and the imperative of helping others. These guiding principles shaped her life and were augmented by her trademark graciousness and resolve.

Lasting legacy: Infant Mary Duke Biddle with mother Mary Lillian Duke Biddle and grandfather Benjamin Duke; lower: as a girl with portrait of great-uncle James B. Duke; with daughters Mary and Rebecca; speaking at the 1983 commencement ceremony. [Credits: Semans Family Papers; Semans Family Papers; Harold Moore for the Durham Herald-Sun; Duke University Archives]

When she was fourteen, Semans’ parents divorced, and she moved to Durham to live with her grandmother Sarah P. Duke, for whom the Duke Gardens are named. She enrolled at Duke as a fifteen-year-old, and in 1938 married Josiah Charles Trent, a medical student who later became chief of Duke Hospital’s thoracic surgery department. The couple had four daughters: Mary Duke Trent Jones ’63, Sarah Elizabeth Trent Harris ’63, Rebecca Gray Trent Kirkland ’64, M.D. ’68, and Barbara Biddle Trent Kimbrell. In 1948, Trent died of lymphoma.

Semans remarried in 1953 to urologist James Hustead Semans, and the couple had three children together: Jenny Lillian Semans Koortbojian A.M. ’06, James Duke Biddle Trent Semans, and Beth Gotham Semans Hubbard ’86.

"She lived to do good for others. Indeed, she lived for others."

Throughout her life, Semans was devoted to improving the lives of individuals and enhancing Duke, Durham, and her adopted home state of North Carolina. In a 1986 profile of Semans in Duke Magazine, she was asked if she had a particular message she wanted to convey to alumni. “Two words,” she replied. “Fight injustice!”

Semans served on Duke’s board of trustees from 1961 to 1981. She was a trustee of The Duke Endowment, a private foundation established in 1924 by her great-uncle James B. Duke, for fifty-five years and was its first female chair, from 1982 to 2001. She was mayor pro tem of Durham from 1953 to 1955 and was a trustee of the Lincoln Community Hospital, from 1948 to 1976. She and James Semans were instrumental in creating the North Carolina School of the Arts, now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she served as a trustee for more than twenty years.

Her philanthropic work included stewardship of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, created by her mother; the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation; the Josiah Charles Trent Collection of the History of Medicine; and the Mary Duke Biddle Scholarship. She was also a tireless advocate of the arts at Duke and was instrumental in establishing the Duke University Museum of Art. The Mary D.B.T. Semans Great Hall at the Nasher Museum is named in her honor.

Semans earned a number of awards during her life. In 1986, she was awarded Duke’s University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Serv-ice, the highest honor the institution bestows. She also received the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the University Award from the University of North Carolina, and the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities from the North Carolina Humanities Council. She earned honorary degrees from Davidson College, North Carolina Central University, Elon University, Shaw University, Campbell University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Pfeiffer University, and N.C. Wesleyan College. In 2009, she was inducted into the North Carolina Women’s Hall of Fame.

At the service, President Richard H. Brodhead recalled his first meeting with Semans, shortly after he was named presi-dent in December 2003. His wife, Cindy, and their son were already in conversation with Semans when Brodhead joined them, “going at it a mile a minute, moving from one pleasure to another, as if they had known each other for 100 years,” he said. “She had taken outsiders and made them feel quite at home, and at the end of two minutes, she had done the same for me.”

“If you knew Mary, you mattered,” said Brodhead. “Lucky us to have been part of the world that Mary Semans loved and made.”

Joel Fleishman, professor of law and public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy, reflected on the motivation behind Semans' many good works. “Don’t let the mile-high stack of Mary’s achievements distract you from what made them possible, what powered them. For that you have to look inside her. She was invariably kind to and gentle with everyone, regardless of their station in life. She lived to do good for others. Indeed, she lived for others.” He noted that Semans was responsible for persuading Terry Sanford to be a candidate for the Duke presidency in 1969 and for advocating for his candidacy to the board of trustees.

In the wake of her death, people who knew her well or only in passing contributed their own reminiscences. A letter to the editor in The Chronicle recalled Semans as a regular visitor to Durham’s Guglhupf Bakery, where she waited patiently in line to place her order and knew every staff member by name. On the Duke University Facebook page, a commenter expressed appreciation for a scholarship Semans funded that “paid for my first year of grad school.” Another posted, “We have lost a guiding light and great leader who helped make Duke one of the world’s great universities. May she rest in peace.” Semans is survived by her seven children; grandchildren J. Trent Jones, Benjamin Parker Jones ’91, Jonathan E. Zeljo ’95, Christopher M. Harris, Matthew C. Harris, Sarah F. Harris Counts, Benjamin N. Lucas, Katherine R. Pendergraft, Shannon Harris Flanders ’86, Josiah C.T. Lucas J.D. ’88, Charles C. Lucas III J.D. ’90, Kenneth Rhyne Harris ’94, J.D. ’02, Gregory Kimbrell, Joseph Kimbrell, Ryan Hubbard, and Spencer Hubbard; and twenty-nine great-grandchildren.