We've Lost a Great North Carolinian in Mary Semans
Flags should be flying at half-mast in this state. A great North Carolinian left us last week when Mary Semans died.
Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans lived a life that few have the energy or heart for. She was certainly born into a privileged family, but it was not her money that defined her - it was her service.
Mary Semans lost her first husband to illness at the early age of 34. Left with children to raise and a broken heart, she still sallied forth to do good and serve not only herself but others. She met and later married Dr. Jim Semans. We lost Jim in 2005. And still she continued, having helped Jim through to his end.
The facts of her life have been documented by reporters before and since her death. My story is different.
I had the great gift of knowing both Mary and Jim for nearly 40 years by virtue of going to the North Carolina School of The Arts. They were both instrumental, along with Gov. Terry Sanford, in creating the school and in their continuing and passionate support of NCSA and the Sienna, Italy, program in particular.
I met the Semanses when I was studying acting in England in a partnership with the Rose Bruford School as an actor for a summer session. I had my first real conversation with them over tea at the National Gallery in London. They sat and asked great questions that said to me, at age 19, that I mattered, that my life choice of acting was of interest, and, above all, that they had faith in me.
Well, they had faith in mankind - and hence in everyone they met.
Mary and I remained in touch over my career. And when I moved, one of my very first trips after arriving was to see Mary. She was a tiny woman and getting tinier by the day, as one does when approaching 90-something. But her shoulders could carry more than most, and her heart had room for all.
I have noticed that several -headlines included the word "heiress," and it is true that she came from families of great wealth. But I fear that the word can lead one to imagine a gal -flying through life with not a care.
Mary saw need and could not let it pass by. She was involved in the life of Durham, in civil rights, in women's issues, and in the lives of children by means of many forms of education. She was a woman of vision and action and never frivolity. This is not to say she could not or did not have fun; she was wonderfully joyful and always more interested in the person she was speaking to than she ever wished you to be in her. That's a rare trait in anyone, let alone an "heiress"!
I have sat at her table and poured my heart out. We have -confabulated on boards together, and I have been uplifted by her example. I learned that the -cornerstone of a truly rich and happy life could be measured by a commitment to charity and -associations.
She led by example and -assisted those of us who wished to join with her, never making -anyone feel guilty or obligated. No, she managed to inspire and attract by her very being. Who would not wish to be with Mary on anything? Only a fool would pass up the chance.
We all owe her more debts than we can pay in the vital areas of the arts, education, music, civil discourse and right thinking. However, she would not be asking for a payback but for a carry-forward. Time to step up and put our shoulders to the plow.
I recently read a quotation that sums Mary up in a few very important words: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
That is as good a description of Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans as you are likely to read. I am so very thankful to have known her, and the state is lucky to have had her. I cannot imagine who can step into the void she leaves.
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She recently retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials.
More like this story