Brodhead on Mary Semans: A Life that Improved the City, Region and University

President Richard H. Brodhead speaks at the memorial service for Mary Semans.  Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography
President Richard H. Brodhead speaks at the memorial service for Mary Semans. Photo by Chris Hildreth/Duke University Photography

Duke University
welcomes you to this celebration of our beloved Mary Semans. This institution
and Mary were so intertwined that neither had a life apart from the other. Mary
was a young member of the Duke family when Duke University was created. The East
and West campuses were built when she was still a child. She moved to Durham
full time at fourteen, shortly before Duke Chapel was completed. At 15, she
enrolled at the Woman's College. From this start and throughout her life, she
loved this university, knew pretty much everything that happened here, and gave
support to every act that took Duke forward.

But though she had
a profound institutional impact, in Mary's case good works took a very personal
form. I remember how it started with me. On a December day in 2003, a stranger
to this school, I was announced as the president who would succeed Nan Keohane.
After the news conference, I was taken on a kind of victory lap to meet the
greats of Duke University -- a celebrated cancer surgeon, a celebrated basketball
coach, and more. As the tour drew to a close, my guide told me with obvious
excitement that it was going to work out for me to meet one more of Duke's
giants -- Mary Semans, our chief link to Duke's founding family.

Now, Mary's name
was not so well known to me as Coach K's. From a brief account, I was expecting
a grand dame or even a kind of local royalty -- Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans! All
those names! And I was not totally disappointed. When I was taken in to meet
her, in the words of the novelist Henry James, this lady did have the air of
being someone in particular. Such a sparkle to those eyes! Such stylishness! (Don't
you love the fact that the commemorative picture on the Duke website is of Mary
in bright yellow with the skirt quite short? As they say in Durham: Not Afraid
of Flavor.)

But if she cut a figure, haughtiness was no
part of the equation. When I arrived, Cindy and our son Dan had already been
with Mary for 10 or 15 minutes, and when I came in, they were going at it a
mile a minute, moving from one shared pleasure to another, as if they had known
each other for years. She had engaged them, she had taken outsiders and made
them quite at home--and at the end of two minutes, she had done the same for
me.

I dwell on this
because if Mary's work will live on through the institutions she supported -- Duke
University, the Duke Endowment, North Carolina School of the Arts, the civic
and cultural activities she supported in Durham -- her effect arose from her
unique skill at personal relations, the way she imbued each individual
encounter with grace, attention and love. Did you ever receive a thank you note
from Mary? I remember dozens: each of which made me feel like I was being fully
appreciated for the first time in my
life. When Mary took Cindy and me to the 50th anniversary production of West Side Story at the School of the
Arts, she singled out each young performer for the sincerest, warmest, most
discerning appreciation. I have studied up on Mary's leadership in civil rights
causes in Durham. As you know, as a widowed mother of four, she was one of the
first two women ever elected to the city council, elected in the same year as integrationist
mayor Mutt Evans; later, she became the leader, with Elna Spaulding, of the cross-racial
group Women in Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes. But these
civic acts were built on personal acts of engagement and appreciation,
friendships Mary built person by person across artificial social divides. Not
just racial divides, but all divides.
Who hasn't heard tales of Mary stopping to embrace people and ask about their
families as she did her grocery shopping, or stopping by a local merchant's to ask
how business was?  If Mary knew you, then
you mattered.

When Mary Semans
was honored at the Nasher Museum two years back, I found a phrase that I haven't
been able to improve on: she was the 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 that she
believed in. She made this city, this university, and this region better in
actuality by the way she believed in their possibility. She couldn't help it:
that's what it meant to be Mary D. B. T. Semans.

Lucky us, to be
part of the world that Mary Semans loved and made.