Durham, N.C. — Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the great-niece of Duke University's founding benefactor, James Buchanan Duke, died Wednesday at the age of 91, according to the the university.
Funeral services will be held Jan. 30 at 2 p.m. at Duke Chapel.
Semans was the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, a Confederate soldier who returned home after the Civil War and planted tobacco. With his sons, Duke helped build the worldwide popularity of cigarettes. He also endowed a small Methodist college that would become Duke University.
A major benefactor of Duke University, Duke Medicine, Durham and North Carolina, Semans was "a tireless champion of education, civil rights and the arts," according to the university. She was elected to the Durham City Council in the 1950s and was a trustee at Duke University for 20 years.
Semans enrolled at Duke when she was 15 and graduated in 1939. She held a bachelor’s degree in history and an honorary doctor of laws degree. While at the university, she met Josiah Charles Trent, a medical student and later a surgeon and chief of Duke Hospital's division of thoracic surgery. The couple married in 1938 and had four children. Trent died of lymphoma 10 years later at age 34.
In 1953, she married Dr. James Semans, a surgeon and associate professor of urology at Duke who pioneered rehabilitative and urinary surgery. The couple had three children and dedicated much of their time and resources to philanthropy and the arts. James Semans died in 2005 at age 94.
A petite woman who liked wearing colorful clothing, Semans was often described as "a force of nature," according to The Duke Endowment.
"She often supported staff members and friends with personal notes, boxes of chocolates and flowers," Duke Endowment officials said.
Semans touched almost every aspect of the Durham community, from the endowment to civil rights to a passionate love for the arts. At the Durham Arts Council, paintings hang on the wall from artists who received grants from a program Semans and her late husband funded.
"Without her, I would not be here, and this museum would not be here," said Kim Rorschach, director of The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. "Mary really got the arts going at Duke University. Many years ago, when Duke was focused on other issues, growing other parts of its program, Mary was a champion of the arts."
Duke University President Richard Brodhead released a statement Wednesday, saying Semans "occupied a unique place in the life of this university."
"She was our principal link to Duke's founding generation and continued her family's tradition of benevolence throughout her life," he said. "She supported every good thing at this university, and she was a powerful force for good in Durham and the Carolinas. Above all, she had a generosity toward others and belief in human possibility that made every encounter an inspiring event. Duke mourns the passing of one of its greatest friends."
The University of North Carolina School of the Arts also released a statement, calling Semans "the mother of UNCSA." She served as a trustee of the school of the arts for more than 20 years and was serving as an emeritus trustee at the time of her death.
“That she led, supported and inspired this school from the moment it was imagined to the cusp of its 50th birthday was in and of itself miraculous. It is hard to imagine going forward without her," said UNCSA Chancellor John Mauceri. "If there was one word to describe Mary Semans it would be 'beautiful' in every sense of that word.”
Mary Semans is survived by seven children: Mary Trent Jones of Abingdon, Va.; Sarah Trent Harris of Charlotte; Dr. Rebecca Trent Kirkland of Houston; 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; 16 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren.