Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans
(February 21, 1920 – January 25, 2012)
The University of North Carolina School of the Arts
gratefully acknowledges the Semans family for designating The Semans Art Fund at
UNCSA for gifts in Mary’s memory. If you wish to make a memorial gift, please
make your check payable to The Semans Art Fund. Please mail your check to:
The Semans Art Fund
c/o UNCSA Foundation, Inc.
1533 South Main Street
Winston-Salem, NC 27127
View Mary Semans' service on Duke Chapel's YouTube
View UNCSA students' performance of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha at Mrs. Semans' service:
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans
DURHAM — 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
|Mrs. Semans in Italy with the International Music Program (circa 1970)
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.
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.
|Dr. and Mrs. Semans on Founder's Day, 1987
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.”
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
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
|Dr. and Mrs. Semans at the Semans Library Dedication, 1978
She married James H. Semans, a Duke University surgeon and
urologist, in 1953. In their 52 years of marriage, they had three
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
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
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
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.
|l-r: Jamie McClure Clarke, Mrs. Semans and Tom Kenan at Evening with the Arts, 1967
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
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;
Dr. Rebecca Trent Kirkland of Houston, Texas; Barbara Trent Kimbrell of
Sullivan’s Island, S.C.; Jenny Semans Koortbojian of Durham; James Duke Biddle
Trent Semans of Chapel Hill; and Beth Semans Hubbard of Los Angeles, Calif.; 16
grandchildren; and 29 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Semans with Chancellor John Mauceri
Governor Jim Hunt with Dr. and Mrs. Semans at the Semans Library Dedication, 1978
Mary Semans with her husband, Dr. James Semans, circa 1970
Chancellor Ewing, Mrs. Semans, Charlie McWhorter and Dr. Semans with the NCSU-NCSA Architect Project, 1993
Mrs. Semans, Benjamin Ruffin, Bill Friday and Sophie Cody at the Film School Studio Village Dedication, 1998
Mrs. Semans with Jeanelle Moore, wife of Governor Dan Moore, at the Semans Library Dedication, 1978
* UNCSA Press Release: UNCSA community saddened by the death of Mary D.B.T. Semans
(includes additional photos of Mrs. Semans)
* Winston-Salem Journal: Mary Semans, heiress, UNCSA benefactor, dies at 91
* The Pilot: We've Lost a Great North Carolinian in Mary Semans
* Raleigh News & Observer: 1,800 mourn Duke heiress Semans
* Raleigh News & Observer: Semans' well-lived life
* Raleigh News & Observer: Philanthropist and Duke heir Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, 91, dies
* WXII-TV News 2: UNCSA Mourns Death Of Mary D.B.T. Semans
* WRAL-TV: Duke descendant dies at 91
Special Thanks to the UNCSA Archives for providing many of the photos seen on this page.