Goodbye Mary

The casket of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans is carried into Duke Chapel, Monday, January 30, 2012.

The possible dream: Mary Semans, 1920-2012

Adam Sobsey

Mary Semans was the heart of Durham, the heart and soul of Duke (alternately, the godmother of Duke), the mother of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. A powerful force for good in Durham and the Carolinas. A woman of valor, the embodiment of unconditional love, an agent of God’s salvation.

All of the above praises were invoked by some of the luminaries who spoke at Mary’s memorial service on Monday afternoon at Duke Chapel, five days after she passed away at age 91: Duke President Richard Brodhead and professor Joel L. Fleishman, faculty chairman of Duke’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society; the philanthropist Thomas S. Kenan III, whose friendship with Mary goes back to his youth; Durham Mayor Bill Bell and former Gov. James B. Hunt, one of a triumvirate of governors in attendance, along with Beverly Perdue and Mike Easley. There was also Charlie Rose, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and his wife, Mickie, and both the current president of the University of North Carolina, Tom Ross, and his predecessor, Erskine Bowles.

In other words, Mary moved in some seriously rarefied air. The only missing honorific above, to my ears, is “queen.”

So why do I call Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans—”commoners do not have five names,” Brodhead quipped on Monday—by her first name?

Two reasons: First, at the reception following Monday’s service, when I told Mary’s daughter, Jenny Semans Koortbojian, that I would be writing about her mother, she smiled and replied: “Make it wry.”

Happy to oblige, but there is a second, much straighter reason why I knew her as Mary: If you knew Mary, that’s how you knew her. It didn’t matter if you were a governor or a bartender. She may have been the Queen of Durham—and, it is easy to imagine, queen of any realm she chose to enter—the great-niece of Duke University’s founder and perhaps our strongest link to the school’s, and thus the city’s, origins; the first woman elected to Durham City Council, six decades ago, and mayor pro tem from 1953–55; the mother of seven children; the primum mobile behind any number of great things in North Carolina. But you called her Mary.

She knew your name, too. “If you knew Mary, then you mattered,” Brodhead said, and it seemed that just about everyone knew her. Mary was the opposite of the reclusive heiress. She met with city and state leaders. She got things done, and got people to do things, good things. She went out to eat.

And that’s mostly how I knew Mary. She and her family were (and will continue to be, surely) regulars at the Durham restaurant where I tend bar. It is the rare occasion—like this one, of Mary’s passing—in which I don’t mind publicly saying that, after spending the day as a writer, I pay for that habit by suiting up with apron and corkscrew, shaking cocktails and taking orders from the Bull City’s upper crust. I can tell you that Mary always drank decaf coffee: You brought it out to her as soon as she sat down, and she always exclaimed “Thank you!” with such sincere, surprised delight at your prescient thoughtfulness that you felt you had made her day—which made your day, too. She nearly always ordered fish, and seldom finished it. Every now and then, you could persuade her to have a scoop of ice cream.

She was a sharp dresser. Brodhead noted the “shocking yellow dress with a shockingly short skirt” that Mary wears in a widely distributed publicity photo. And speaking of wry, when you showed up tableside with Mary’s decaf, you usually found her wig slightly askew on her head. She managed to make that look rather stylish. Once her daughter, Beth, called the restaurant well after closing, wondering if we happened to have found Mary’s hearing aid. We hadn’t, but our sous chef delayed phoning in his order for the next morning, rooted through the dirty linen bag and discovered the earpiece rolled up in the tablecloth on which Mary had eaten dinner. You’d do anything for Mary. A day or two later, we got one of the gracious handwritten notes for which she is famous.

I don’t mind identifying as a bartender because Mary made you feel entirely comfortable with who you were and where you came from (and where you were going, too). “How’s your Mom?” she always wanted to know. They were friends, and in fact my mother lives in a house that Mary herself lived in long ago. That’s the kind of history she is responsible for in Durham: personal history. She endowed not just institutions, but people.

That endowment came less from putting her money where her mouth was than from putting her physical presence there. She not only asked how rehearsals were going for my new play a few years ago, she actually went to Chapel Hill to see it in performance. She was so tickled by one of the repeating lines that, for a few months afterward, every time I went by her table at the restaurant she would beckon me over, somewhat urgently and say: “Adam.” Yes, Mary? “It is what it is.”

I imagine she found those five words a hoot because, for her, they weren’t true. In Mary’s world, it isn’t what it is, it’s what it could be. As Jim Hunt put it on Monday afternoon, Mary made him understand that “North Carolina could only be the state she wanted it to be if we set big goals.” Four students from the School of the Arts gave a stirring performance of “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha—”To fight for the right / Without question or pause”—which I chose to hear, in Mary’s spirit, as “The Possible Dream.” The stars, for Mary, were reachable. A School of the Arts? The governor of North Carolina, Terry Sanford, as president of Duke University? Equal rights for the disenfranchised? Possible. Reachable.

But how? How did Mary Semans manage to do so much, to be everywhere, to know everyone and reach so deeply—and so lovingly—into our personal stars? That was Mary’s greatness, and greatness is ineffable.

Two hints, though, the first from Mary herself. There she is, wearing a pink polka-dotted blazer, in a 2009 video of the 75th anniversary celebration of Duke Gardens, which she helped sustain: “The more people who come, the better off it is,” she says, a curious thing to say of a place as fragile as a garden. But she meant it. She wanted to embrace the world, and sure enough, strolling through Duke Gardens not long after Monday’s Chapel service, you saw students, foreign visitors snapping pictures, a Latino couple with their kid, joggers: the world in all its variety, stopping to smell the flowers she helped grow.

The second hint came from Jenny Semans Koortbojian at Monday’s reception. Mary had the power to attract multitudes, but she contained multitudes, too. How did she do it? How did she spread herself among us so fully? Note that Jenny’s words are in the present tense, because Mary is still, undeniably, with us.

“There’s enough of Mom to go around,” Jenny said. “She’s a quantum being.”

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