Mary D.B.T. Semans: She lived to do good for others

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans—lifelong philanthropist, civic leader, humanitarian, and great-granddaughter of university namesake Washington Duke—died January 25 at the age of ninety-one. The only daughter of Mary Lillian Duke and Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr., Mary served on the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation throughout her life. We mourn her loss while celebrating her extraordinary life.

During the service of death and resurrection for her that was held in Duke Chapel, family and friends paid tribute to the remarkable arc of Mary’s life and her indelible legacy of service. The diversity of backgrounds of those present—university leaders, state and local politicians, community activists, artists, students and faculty members, alumni—was a testament to her far-reaching influence.

Mary was born in New York to Mary Lillian Duke, the only 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, Mary was introduced to the transformative power of 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.

When she was fourteen, Mary 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, Sarah Elizabeth Trent Harris, Rebecca Gray Trent Kirkland, and Barbara Biddle Trent Kimbrell. In 1948, Trent died of lymphoma.

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

Mary 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.

In addition to her stewardship of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, she was also instrumental in guiding the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation; the Josiah Charles Trent Collection of the History of Medicine; and the Mary Duke Biddle Scholarship. Mary 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.

Mary earned a number of awards during her life. In 1986, she was awarded Duke’s University Medal for Distinguished Meritorious Service, 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.

Mary D.B.T. Semans is survived by her seven children; grandchildren J. Trent Jones, Benjamin Parker Jones, Jonathan E. Zeljo, Christopher M. Harris, Matthew C. Harris, Sarah F. Harris Counts, Benjamin N. Lucas, Katherine R. Pendergraft, Shannon Harris Flanders, Josiah C.T. Lucas, Charles C. Lucas III, Kenneth Rhyne Harris, Gregory Kimbrell, Joseph Kimbrell, Ryan Hubbard, and Spencer Hubbard; and twenty-nine great-grandchildren.