Remembering Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans

I am saddened this week by the loss of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans. You only have to turn on the radio or open the paper this week in North Carolina to hear a flood of remembrances of her remarkable life. The Durham Herald Sun listed some of her contributions to the state:

She was a City Council member and mayor pro tem, a trustee of Duke University and the founder of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, a board member of Lincoln Community Health Center and a major force behind the creation of the Nasher Museum.

She served as trustee, vice president and president of the Duke Endowment. She was involved in the creation of the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation, the Josiah Charles Trent Collection of the History of Medicine and the Mary Duke Biddle Scholarship.

Mrs. Semans helped found the Durham Arts Council and the N.C. School of the Arts. She was a champion of education and fought for civil rights and affordable housing.

As truly great a woman as she was, and as amazing as her achievements in improving the quality of life for all North Carolinians were, I find myself remembering my first direct interaction with her.

Back in my days as a Duke student, I worked for Technical Services, and one of my jobs was running a sound board at the groundbreaking of one of the huge science buildings – big crowd, all major players and big money. I might as well have been invisible. As soon as the program ended, she walked directly through this crowd of powerful people to the back of the tent to thank and compliment us for our good work and spent a few minutes chatting with us. That will always be my impression of her – a woman who sought out and appreciated the invisible people.

That night, every member of the crew would have moved heaven and earth for her. I still would.

Mary’s wide-ranging and fierce dedication to her community touched our work at RAFI, too. She was the Chair of the Duke Endowment board during the years when Duke began to support RAFI’s work. Under her tenure, that support enabled us to train rural clergy and reach out to farmers in crisis through their churches, get a strong start to start our Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Program, and see farmers through the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd.

In the years since, her legacy can be seen in the Duke Endowment’s ongoing commitment, which has allowed us to provide mental health and suicide prevention training to rural clergy who serve contract poultry farmers, found and build the Come to the Table Project, and more. It’s no coincidence that these initiatives have enabled RAFI to support farm families whose struggles would have otherwise been invisible.

She will be missed.

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