Farewell to Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

University and community remember her in a Duke Chapel service

semanswells280.jpg
Duke Chapel Dean Rev. Sam Wells leads the service for Mary Semans Monday in Duke Chapel. Photographs by Duke University Photography.

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