By Todd Cohen
DURHAM, N.C. – Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a philanthropist who supported a broad range of causes with compassion, kindness and devotion, and who bridged the era from just after World War I with the Internet age, died Jan. 25 at age 91.
Born and raised in New York City, Mrs. Semans lived in North Carolina after graduating from Duke University, where she enrolled at age 15.
She served for over 50 years on the board of The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based foundation that was created by her great uncle and is the largest foundation in the Southeast, and was its first female chairman from 1982 to 2001.
She also served on the board of the Durham-based Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, a smaller foundation created by her mother to support arts, educational and charitable causes in North Carolina and New York City.
“For our organization, she has been the spirit of the presence of Mr. Duke and the sensitivities of the Duke family and their interest in making the Carolinas better,” says Gene Cochrane, president of The Duke Endowment.
Doug Zinn, executive director of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, says Mrs. Semans was “genuine in her interest and commitment and devotion to people, to justice and to making life better for everybody.”
Mrs. Semans was the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke, who with his sons, Benjamin Newton Duke and James B. Duke, helped build American Tobacco Company and Duke Power Company, now Duke Energy, into industry leaders and forces for economic growth.
The Dukes were the chief benefactors of Trinity College in Durham, which later became Duke University.
And James B. Duke, Mrs. Semans’ great uncle, created The Duke Endowment in 1924.
Mrs. Semans, who served on many boards and helped raise money for many organizations, devoted her life to supporting education, children’s issues, health care and the arts.
She and her second husband, James H. Semans, who died in 2005 at age 94, were strong supporters of Duke University and of causes ranging from education and medicine to economic justice, housing for the poor, people with disabilities, and vocational education.
The couple also was instrumental in the establishment of the Winston-Salem-based University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the first state-supported arts conservatory in the U.S.
Mrs. Semans served as a trustee for the school for over 20 years, and continued to serve as an honorary board member.
When it came under attack from state lawmakers shortly after it opened in 1965, Jim and Mary Semans “were responsible, if anyone was, for saving the school when it was most vulnerable,” says David Winslow, who is president of The Winslow Group, a Winston-Salem fundraising consulting firm, and secretary of the Semans Art Fund, a small foundation that supports students and faculty at the School of the Arts.
In 1971, the couple received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor, and in 1997 they received the North Carolina Philanthropy Award, presented by the Philanthropy Journal to recognize sustained and significant support for the state’s nonprofit sector.
Cochrane says that in her decision-making process at The Duke Endowment, Mrs. Semans “was trustee first, and family member second, and I always had great respect for her doing it in that way.”
Despite the strict limitations that James B. Duke set on the funding focus of the Endowment, which supports education, health care, children and religion, it adapted itself to changing times, and Mrs. Semans supported that change with “supportive caution,” Cochrane says.
“She would generally support the discussion and was always open to that change, but she would make sure we would imagine the question in light of the roots of the organization,” he says. “She was open to change, she encouraged change, but she wanted it done carefully and thoughtfully.”
She also “seemed to be perfectly comfortable in every decade,” he says. “She had a wonderful curiosity about what’s next.”
As the Endowment was redesigning its website in 2010 and its email newsletter in 2011, for example, “she wanted it done, but she always wanted to understand what we were planning to do,” Cochrane says. “It got her curiosity and she was very supportive of it.”
Zinn of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation says Mrs. Semans was the “embodiment of goodness” and had “true genuine charm.”
She “meant everything she said to people,” he says. “And she was a great enabler and believed in bringing disparate groups together and finding solutions.”
Her life was “built on the upbeat,” he says.
“She always saw the positive, or found the positive, in any situation,” Zinn says. “And then she wrapped herself around that and that’s how it grew.”
Winslow says Mrs. Semans was the “most extraordinary person I’ve known in my lifetime in philanthropy.”
At the same time she was making an impact on a personal level, he says, she also “was able to profoundly go way beyond the person and affect institutions and movements and things much bigger.”
Jim and Mary Semans, for example, spearheaded the creation of an emerging-artists program that was launched at the Durham Arts Council, then was expanded statewide and eventually was replicated throughout the U.S., Winslow says.
The idea was to invest “seed” money in young, budding artists, “giving them a boost at that special time in their lives, often spelling the difference between doing nothing and doing something great,” he says, “and that was the kind of philanthropist she was.”