Mary Semans: The loss of a ‘little giant’

Mary Semans died this morning, a passing that marks the loss of a powerful force wrapped in one of the tiniest bodies you’ll ever see. Mrs. Semans couldn’t have been more than 4-feet-10 inches tall. By the time she died today at Duke Hospital, she was rail thin. But make no mistake: The swath she cut in North Carolina and beyond was spectacularly large.

In Durham, Mrs. Semans, 91, was known for many things that would make any good citizen proud. For me, however, I will always remember that she was one of the last remaining direct descendants of the famous family for which Duke University is named. While so many other family members chose to live elsewhere, Mrs. Semans chose to stay in Durham. Of course, she had the means to reside anywhere in the world, but she didn’t. She liked it here in Durham. And that helped some of us in Durham feel better when our oft-maligned city was taking a beating.

Long a generous supporter of the arts, Mrs. Semans also accomplished important and courageous things earlier in her long and meaningful life. She was a strong and influential voice for progressive change during the Civil Rights Movement, at a time when so many Southerners were afraid to speak out. She was an early and effective supporter of women’s rights, a special and lasting passion for her. She was a woman not only of strength, kindness and commitment, but also bravery. She had an admirable sense of duty to give back to her community, something she continued doing until the very end.

Some of us who have lived in Durham a long time, and who were lucky enough to know Mrs. Semans, enjoyed calling her “Mary DBT,” a fond reference to her heritage that followed her even after she married Dr. Jim Semans, who died a few years ago. When Mrs. Semans lost him, some of us wondered how long she, herself, might hold on.

But hold on she did. Until relatively recently, I’d run into her while she did her own shopping at the Harris-Teeter on MLK Boulevard, always accompanied by a loyal assistant. She regularly greeted me with a smile and a hug, a grasp from such a small woman I sometimes barely felt it. Remarkable to me was that she continued offering this reception even when the years began to mount and I wasn’t sure she always fully recognized me.

Mrs. Semans was certainly fond of her routines. As evidence, I offer this: During the past few years, she ate lunch at the Guglhupf Bakery nearly every day. Literally. Every weekday and sometimes on weekends.

I can’t count how many times I’ve paused to look up at her wondrous family home on Forest Hills Drive. The majestic Tudor with pink highlights on the trim, is palatial, the sort of dwelling that demands a formal name. And it has one: “Pinecrest.” The grounds, especially in the rear, are like something you might see at an ancient European villa. Obscured from the street by the house, the back gardens are sprawling and serene, a glimpse into another lifetime. The grounds encompass virtually an entire city block. At some point, she and Dr. Semans decided to move, full time, into another home on the same property, a more contemporary place that required less upkeep. “A more modest place,” she once told me. “It’s more practical and we can manage things easier.” Smaller yes, but the newer house is not exactly a hovel. It also has stature enough for a name, which it eventually received: “Les Terrasses.”

The Duke community lost a matriarch today. Durham lost a leader of uncommon influence and kindness, the kind who comes along rarely, perhaps a few times each generation. Others lost a friend. I might not have known her as well as some. I never dined in her home. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards. But she never allowed you to feel like you were merely an acquaintance, even if that’s exactly what we were. She had a knack for making people feel special. She glowed. And it rubbed off.

So that’s a snapshot of the Mrs. Semans I knew. And that’s how I’ll remember her — as a friend. It’s funny: I already miss her, that eensy giant of a woman. The word of her death hit me harder than I might have imagined. When I heard the news, I looked at my arms in time to see goose-bumps rising and my hair perking up. I was really moved. In my book, it doesn’t get much better than that.

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