In Durham and indeed throughout North Carolina, the surname Duke - if it signals a connection to the Dukes who founded a tobacco empire and used their fortune to propel a university to national renown - can be a ticket to wealth, influence and social acclaim. It was to the great credit of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans that she wore her family heritage lightly, while also using her status to advance a phenomenal array of civic endeavors.
Although Mary Semans grew up in New York and abroad, she embraced her family's historic links to Durham and became an effective advocate for the city.
Upon her death Wednesday, at age 91, Mayor Bill Bell saluted her as "the heart of Durham" and recalled how she "touched all races and all levels of income. She seemed to do it comfortably" - qualities that go well beyond the job description of the stereotypical heiress. Which she was not.
Semans took care to look out for the welfare of Duke University, from which she had earned a degree in history. Far more than that, she lent her energy and prominence to moving her community and state ahead in the arts, in health care and social justice.
The UNC School of the Arts, as it is now known, in Winston-Salem, received key backing from her and her second husband of more than 50 years, surgeon Jim Semans, as they provided funds for music and dance. But even as she moved in circles of culture and scholarship, she also became involved in the real world of local politics, at one point winning a seat on the Durham City Council. A familiar contributor to The N&O's People's Forum, she always found a way to say something positive.
Semans, who was first married to Dr. Josiah Trent and who bore seven children, outlived both her husbands. Her life was a marvelous exercise in civic and social engagement, and she followed her own advice to Duke graduates: "do something that benefits the human condition."