Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a lifelong philanthropist and civic leader in North Carolina, died on January 25, 2012, in Durham. She was 91.
Mrs. Semans devoted herself to education, children’s services, health care and the arts, and her compassion for others helped shape and sustain significant programs and institutions across the Carolinas and the nation. She was born into a family of industrialists and philanthropists. 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. Mrs. Semans carried on the family legacy through her own foundations and philanthropic work, serving on numerous boards as a trustee and advisor, and acting as a champion for all types of humanitarian causes. She was a Trustee of The Duke Endowment for 55 years, and served as its first female Chairman from 1982-2001. After 2001, she continued serving as Chair Emerita. Mrs. Semans also served as a Trustee of many educational institutions in the Carolinas, including Duke University, Davidson College, Shaw University, Louisburg College, Converse College and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
She was instrumental in establishing the Duke University Museum of Art, which became the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, and the museum’s Great Hall bears her name. Philanthropy, Mrs. Semans once said in a speech, is not about charity or noblesse oblige. “But the joy of giving. The good feeling of sharing. The giving that benefits the giver as well as the recipient.” “We’re all here for each other,” she told a reporter. “I take very seriously this business of treating your neighbor as yourself.” Mrs. 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. Apart from a childhood in New York City, Mrs. Semans lived most of her life in Durham. She attended the Hewitt School in New York and then enrolled in the Woman’s College at Duke University at age 15. In 1938, she married Josiah Trent, a surgical intern who would become the chief of Duke Hospital’s division of thoracic surgery. The couple developed a passion for rare books, including books about the history of medicine and many by and about Walt Whitman. Dr. Trent died of cancer after 10 years of marriage. As a young widow and mother of four girls, she ran for a seat on the Durham City Council and became the first woman elected in 1951. She served as mayor pro-tem from 1953-55. While in office, she advocated for civil rights, affordable housing, cultural enrichment opportunities, and humane medical care, and was named one of the city’s “Mothers of the Year” in 1952.
She married James H. Semans, a Duke University surgeon and urologist, in 1953. In their 52 years of marriage, they had three children. Mrs. Semans, along with her husband, took active roles in public service. 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 as an honorary member of the board. Mrs. Semans 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 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.
Mrs. Semans was known for her keen mind, graciousness, genuine concern for others and boundless energy. Among her multiple affiliations, she served on the boards of 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 also served as chairman of the Governor’s Study Committee on Vocational Rehabilitation and was a member of the National Citizens Advisory Commission on Vocational Rehabilitation, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mrs. Semans also served as a member of the board of directors of First Union Corporation. In 1986, she received one of the first two University Medals for Distinguished Meritorious Service at Duke. Her honorary degrees came from Duke, Campbell University, Davidson College, Elon University, Furman University, N.C. Central University, North Carolina Wesleyan College, Pfeiffer University, Shaw University and UNC Chapel Hill. Mrs. 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; the North Carolina Philanthropy Award; and the North Caroliniana Society Award. 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.
Mrs. Semans is survived by seven children: Mary Trent Jones of Abingdon, VA, Sarah Trent Harris of Charlotte, NC, Dr. Rebecca Trent Kirkland of Houston, Texas; Barbara Trent Kimbrell of Sullivan’s Island, SC, Jenny Semans Koortbojian of Durham, NC, James Duke Biddle Trent Semans of Chapel Hill, NC, and Beth Semans Hubbard of Los Angeles, CA.; 16 grandchildren; and 29 great-grandchildren.
A funeral service were held 2:00 p.m. Monday, January 30, 2012 at Duke Chapel. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Howerton & Bryan Funeral Home.
Memorials may be made to the Semans Art Fund, c/o University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the Duke Medicine Heart Center; the Duke Medicine Pulmonary Division Fund; Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment, c/o Duke University; or the Frank Neelon Fund for Literature in Medicine, c/o Triangle Community Foundation.
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