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Roney Fountain Ceremony Brings Together Families

Roney, Duke families celebrate restoration of fountain to its original glory

Gardens visitors enjoy a moment on the rim of the Roney Fountain during the dedication ceremony Wednesday. Photo by John Gardiner
Gardens visitors enjoy a moment on the rim of the Roney Fountain during the dedication ceremony Wednesday. Photo by John Gardiner

The dedication of the
restored, century-old Roney Fountain at Sarah P. Duke Gardens grew into a
family reunion Wednesday evening, with Roney and Duke family members gathering
to enjoy two things many had never seen before: distant relatives and the
fountain itself.

"The Roneys have always
been dedicated people to this university, and this is Roney Day to me,"
said Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, to whom the restoration of the fountain is

Family members traveled from
nearby Alamance County, New England and elsewhere to see the restored fountain,
the centerpiece to Duke Gardens' circular Rose Garden and to learn about its

Anne Roney, sister-in-law of Washington Duke,
donated the fountain in 1897* to what was then Trinity College in Washington
Duke's honor. Washington Duke was one of Trinity College's early benefactors,
and Duke University was named in his honor. Mary D.B.T. Semans is Washington
Duke's great-granddaughter, and the granddaughter of Sarah P. Duke, the Gardens'

The fountain fell into disrepair over the decades.
With magnolia trees overshadowing it, many people didn't even notice it was

Duke Gardens, meanwhile, was
seeking a fountain. An early master plan for the Rose Garden had called for one,
but it had never been built. Instead, ever-changing plantings formed the circle's

"Every time you've
walked down the stairs, you've looked at this beautiful Rose Garden and you've
realized it needed something to complete it," Duke University President
Richard Brodhead told the crowd of about 75 people at the dedication. "It
needed something to catch the eye at the center."

Brodhead marveled at "the
story of how then Duke Gardens is planning to put in a water feature and
somebody has the bright idea, 'What if we take this one that has been part of
our heritage for 100 years that no one has seen for X years? What if we made
that the fountain?'"

That notion changed the
fountain's fate. The lower tier -- all that had remained of the original
three-tiered, bird-bedecked structure -- was removed from East Campus and
brought to Robinson Iron in Alabama, which had bought the original molds from
their creator. Then the newly built fountain and its original basin were moved
to the Rose Garden, the first major feature visitors see after entering through
the Gothic gates. An elegant new plaza now surrounds the fountain. The Rose
Garden itself will be redesigned this summer.

"Who could believe that
when you put it up, it would have this extraordinary graciousness?"
Brodhead asked the crowd, as he stood before the fountain. "The crane, the
wings, the water falling off the bird's back -- it fits the place so perfectly
that now you know two weeks from now people will come and they'll say, 'Wasn't
it great that that fountain was put there when they first created Duke Gardens?'"

A bequest from the late Dr. J. Robert Teabeaut II
(T '45, M.D. '47) paid for the restoration. The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation
provided additional funding for the project, as did the Thomas S. Kenan
Foundation, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and other donors.

Semans, in a brief speech, honored a number of
people from the past and present who helped make the fountain restoration -- and
Duke Gardens -- possible, from Anne Roney to Norfleet Webb, the Gardens' first
superintendent, and Dr. Frederic Hanes, one of the original faculty members at
Duke Medical School, who had the initial idea to start a garden in what was an
undeveloped ravine. Semans remained long after the ceremony to chat and pose
for photos with Roney relatives.

Dean Holt, who heard about the fountain on
Facebook, came from Rhode Island for the dedication. The Holt and Roney families
are intertwined, he said, and he is the grandson of Dean Roney Holt.

"It was a very special
occasion," he said, "and one of those once-in-a-lifetime events when
you get to see a dedication like that of something that will be enjoyed by lots
of people but is especially meaningful to members of the family."

After this summer's Rose Garden redesign, it will be renamed the Mary Duke Biddle Rose
Garden. The entrance alley and stairs also will be transformed. Work will begin
on a new handicapped-accessible path next week.

Brodhead, in his speech, said
the fountain serves as an elegant symbol of generosity, particularly by Anne
Roney, who helped raise Washington Duke's two children, Duke University
benefactors Benjamin N. Duke and James Buchanan Duke, after their mother died.

"The fact that she gave
this fountain helps us to remember all that family linkage, all that generosity
of people stepping in to fill voids in one another's lives," he said. "It's
just a lovely thing to have there. And then to have it linked with the name of
Mary Semans and her foundation, which is redoing the Rose Garden, it just sort
of weaves together all the moments in the history of this place in something that
is so totally beautiful."

* The story originally gave 1901 as the date of installation. Newer information found in 2017 now suggests it was 1897.