If you had the Road Spoke app and were driving northbound on I-95 , you would …Hear this here!
EXIT 93 I-95n: Smithfield Brogden Road
Upcoming is a cross road on which if you head north, you get to Durham and if you head south you get to Goldsboro. Speaking of gold, when this woman died in 2012, Duke University’s Chapel was filled to capacity. Overflow mourners had to watch the proceedings on a screen in an adjacent auditorium. The pews were filled with people from all walks of life and by all creeds and colors.
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans was an American activist and philanthropist. Despite receiving a lot through inheritance, in the spiritual balance sheet of life, Mary Duke Biddle was a supreme giver.
Mary was the granddaughter of Benjamin Duke and the great-granddaughter of Washington Duke. These men were both tobacco and later hydro-electric energy tycoons who helped start Duke Tobacco, Duke Energy and Duke University. Their flaxen haired grand-daughter Mary is remembered for promoting science and humanities through various philanthropic entities — many associated with her beloved Duke University and all beneficial to the Carolinas.
The Rural Advancement Foundation International helps farm communities all over the world. In a memorial, RAFI founder Scott Marlow wrote, “Back in my days as a Duke student, 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, Mary 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.”
Little Mary Duke Biddle was born in 1920 in New York City to Mary Lillian Duke and Anthony Drexel Biddle, Jr.. No doubt she lived a privileged life yet it was by no means all roses. What she did with her privilege was what we can only be called class. In fact, she was inspired by her innovative parents: Mary’s Mom was an aspiring opera singer and her father a foreign service officer and ambassador. Her dad served with valor in the trenches of World War One as an Army Captain.
At the age of fourteen, her parents divorced and she moved to Durham, North Carolina to live with her grandmother. In 1935 she enrolled in Duke's Women’s College..
There she met and married Josiah Charles Trent, a talented medical student who eventually became the chief of Duke Hospital’s Division of Thoracic Surgery. Despite getting her degree in Art History, her husband exposed her to the exciting promises of modern science. Then in 1948, Trent died of lymphoma, leaving Mary alone to raise four little girls.
Enrolling again at Duke to get an advanced degree, Mary met and married Doctor James Semans, a surgeon. Together they had three more children. If you are counting, yes that meant seven kids!
On the professional front, the couple became full time community activists. In 1953 Mary was the one of the 2 first women ever elected to Durham’s City Council and for 2 years she served as mayor pro tem of the city. While in office, she advocated against voter suppression of African Americans and focused on civil rights, cultural enrichment, and affordable housing.
Mary was always passionate about her namesake university. Her ambition was to make the institution as good as any Ivy League college up north. Mary financially supported many projects at her alma mater.
She also spent many years as chair of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, started by and named after her mother, and focusing on children and the arts. These were projects her Mom loved. The foundation was not exclusive to Duke University but rather expanded in the community around the Raleigh Durham Chapel Hill Triangle.
She also served 45 years as a trustee of The Duke Endowment. The mission of the endowment is to “strengthen communities in North Carolina and South Carolina by nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits.” A central initiative was to encourage, educate, and support rural residents to join medical professions.
The Duke Endowment can be considered a progressive model for later rural focused foundations like the Walton Family Foundation in Arkansas and even Warren Buffet’s philanthropic initiatives. Duke applied modern business metrics such as “return on investment” to measure and steer their non-profit initiatives.
In 1982, Mary became the Endowment’s first female chair, a position she retained until 2001. Through her position she and her husband started the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation, the Josiah Charles Trent Collection of the History of Medicine, both named after her first husband.
Duke today is one of the foremost Medical colleges in the world and true to her dream, the University often ranks in the top 5 universities worldwide — ahead of many of those Ivy League colleges up north.
At the end of her life in 2012, when asked for a reflection on her work, she replied that she “sees that word ‘philanthropy’ all the time,” but never thought it applied to her. She was simply “giving at times when someone needed it”. Indeed Mary was a giver. The state you are driving through was her greatest beneficiary.
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