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Farewell to Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

Farewell to Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

University and community remember her in a Duke Chapel service

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Duke Chapel Dean Rev. Sam Wells leads the service for Mary Semans Monday in Duke Chapel. Photographs by Duke University Photography.

Durham, NC - Duke University said goodbye Monday to a woman described as its "heart and soul," a historic figure whose "extravagant love" transformed the university and its city.

In a Duke Chapel service filled with music and pageantry, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans -- who served as a living link between the university's founders and its modern accomplishments -- was remembered for her many contributions to Duke, Durham and North Carolina, and for what Duke President Richard Brodhead called her "embodiment of unconditional love."

"She saw more good in others than any of us are used to seeing in ourselves, and she made you want to be the person she believed in," Brodhead told an audience that filled the chapel well before the 2 p.m. service began. "She made this city, this university and this region better in actuality by the way she believed in their possibility." [Brodhead's complete remarks are available here. A video of the service is here.]

Semans, the great-granddaughter of industrialist-philanthropist Washington Duke, for whom Duke University is named, died on Wednesday at the age of 91. Her grandfather was Benjamin N. Duke, the brother of James B. Duke, who endowed the university.

She inspired people across the city and state to be "all that they can be and should be and must be," said former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., who joined current Gov. Bev Perdue and other state and local leaders at the service along with family members and admirers from across the university, the city and beyond. Hunt praised her as a champion of progressive causes whose support could bolster political leaders when they were being criticized, and who also could "fix our eyes with that kind but steely look and encourage us to work harder and do more."  She "knew that North Carolina could only be the state she wanted it to be if we set big goals," Hunt said.

Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel, presided over the service, calling Semans "a sword that pierced our souls," and predicting she would bring a "twinkle in the eye" of God just as she had to the university. The program alternated between remembrances of her life and musical selections that included a Dvorak selection from the Ciompi Quartet, spirituals from the Durham Carolers and a performance of "The Impossible Dream" by student musicians from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, which Semans helped found.

The Duke Choir added several hymns, most movingly at the end of the service as its members moved to the back of the chapel and sang "God Be in My Head," which concludes with the words, "God be at my end and in my departing."

In their remarks, the five speakers described a remarkable life that ranged from serving as Durham's first female mayor pro tem to fighting for civil rights and enriching the arts, such as through her support of Duke's Nasher Museum of Art. "How Mary did all she did while at the same time raising and nurturing seven children is a miracle in itself," said Joel Fleishman, who heads Duke's Center for Strategic Philanthropy & Civil Society. Fleishman also noted Semans’ unheralded role in creating what became the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Semans "left an indelible mark" and a "legacy for generations to come."

As the ceremony neared its end, Thomas S. Kenan III, who knew Semans since his childhood and served with her on The Duke Endowment and other philanthropies, said "the love and energy in this chapel is overwhelming." He echoed Brodhead's opening remarks, which concluded: "Lucky us, to be part of the world that Mary Semans loved and made."

Mary Semans memorial service

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