Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I met Mrs. Semans many times at lunch at Rue Cler in Durham. She was charming and tiny, but with the biggest smile. She was a sharp as a tac right to the end.

This is from the N & O today.

Mary D.B.T. Semans dies at 91


The N&O brings sad news today: Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a Duke descendent who was devoted to philanthropy, education, civil rights and the arts, died today at the age of 91. Semans died this morning at Duke Hospital, said her assistant, Kathy Harrison. Semans was born into extraordinary privilege as a member of the family that founded Duke University. She was great-granddaughter to Washington Duke, granddaughter of Benjamin N. Duke and Sarah Duke, and daughter of Mary Duke and Anthony Biddle. Yet she didn't get caught up in a whirlwind of ball gowns and blue bloods. Instead, she set about living a life of substance in Durham, where she married twice, raised seven children and served in a seemingly endless number of roles, including mayor pro tem of Durham, trustee at Duke University and trustee of several family foundations, including the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation named for her mother. She was a passionate supporter of civil rights, working for affordable housing in Durham and serving on the board of Lincoln Community Health Center, a provider of health care to low-income residents.

We got to know Mrs. Semans a little over the past few years, including an in-depth interview with her in 2009 in which she talked about her family's history, her political and philanthropic endeavors, her support of the arts and more. Here is a transcript. RIP, Mrs. Semans, and thank you for all you did for Durham.


It is not hyperbole to say that Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans is a pillar of our city. She has used the clout and wealth of her famous family to push for civil rights, support the arts in Durham and across the state and to bridge the town-gown divide. Semans is as sharp as ever at age 89, with amazing recall of all the ways Durham has changed since she moved here at the age of 15. She has been an active administrator of the multibillion dollar Duke Endowment (which is separate from Duke University), as well as a generous patron of the arts. Semans carries herself with a self-assurance that never gives way to even a hint of haughtiness. That, despite the fact she’s amassed a trove of awards and honors. Durham Magazine’s Matt Dees and Dana Lange took the occasion of yet another accolade – a Nov. 14 gala recognizing her pioneering contributions to the Nasher Museum of Art – as an opportunity to chat with this decidedly down-to-earth legend at her Forest Hills office.

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