02/02/2012 06:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

Remembering Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans: The Unofficial First Lady of N.C.

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Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, the philanthropist who died last week in Durham, N.C., at age 91, never cut the same high-profile swath as Doris Duke, her glamorous and frequently infamous first cousin (once removed). Nor was she as wealthy, since Miss Duke had the great fortune (at least in some ways) to be the only child of James B. ("Buck") Duke, the tobacco magnate and founder of Duke University. Still, make no mistake, Mrs. Semans was, as the Associated Press reported in her obituary, "the heiress to a vast Gilded Age fortune." In so many ways she led a quiet life, a life filled with countless good deeds. I was fortunate to have called her "friend."

The first time Mary Semans came to our house for dinner in Chapel Hill you could hear the hushed whispers among our guests. "Mrs. Semans is here" or "That's Mrs. Semans!" A recent friend of ours from New Jersey, unacquainted with the unofficial first lady of North Carolina, was puzzled by this regal woman in her late 80s, short in stature but hair piled high, wearing a riot of color. In a friendly way she approached, asking point blank: "Who are you, Mrs. Semans?" Said the "heiress," "I'm Mary."

That was the Mary Semans that I had come to know and love, too. Plain "Mary." Okay,
not so plain -- she loved her bangles and was known to wear short skirts that Emily Post might have decreed "inappropriate" for a woman her age. This was the same outspoken woman who boasted at a dinner last year "that the best thing about North Carolina was UNC" [not her namesake Duke University] because it had brought higher education to one and all. Sacrilege in this part of the world.

From reading the slew of obituaries published since her passing, Mrs. Semans was actually a "Who's Who" unto herself. An lifelong activist for civil and human rights, she was also a passionate supporter of education and the arts, children's services and health care. She served on numerous boards, including the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation (named in honor of her mother), the Executive Mansion Fine Arts Committee, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the National Humanities Center, and The Duke Endowment, in addition to winning accolades such as the North Carolina Award, the state's highest civilian award, and the National Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. She was also Durham's first female mayor pro tem, served on the city council, and in her "spare" time had seven kids.

Still before we fast track Mrs. Semans to sainthood, I'd like to recall the Mary Semans who was known for her humility, her courage, and, yes, her emotional intelligence -- attributes you might not normally associate with an "heiress."

Despite her wealth and lineage, I stopped growing surprised when I bumped into Mrs. Semans shopping with her Vic card at Harris Teeter or in the aisles of A Southern Season (a local food emporium) amassing her gi-normous list of Christmas gifts for family and other loved ones. Most days of the week you could find her lunching with son James and daughter Jenny at a stand-in-line-kind-of-café in Durham and on many a Friday night on a bar stool at Nana's Restaurant, again with Jenny. She certainly didn't stand on ceremony -- often calling at the last minute to invite my partner and me to join them. "It's Mary," she would jump in with, never "Mrs. Semans" and certainly not the "woman-with-five-names."

She was the real deal. Years ago Mrs. Semans had spoken openly about her parents' divorce, at a time when divorce carried much stigma. She also publicly addressed her mother's nervous breakdown soon thereafter and the suffering she endured for decades to come. Only three years ago on Charlie Rose's PBS program did she acknowledge that she had never gotten over her parents divorce. Others might have tried to whitewash the family history, but Mary Semans wore it as a badge of courage, as though encouraging the rest us with mental health issues to let go of the shame and seek treatment.

Two years ago, one of Mrs. Semans' twenty-nine grandchildren took a husband. Not a big deal in such a large family, but path breaking because it was daughter Sally Harris's son, Matt, who was marrying his boyfriend. Mrs. Semans' excitement about the event was infectious as she prepared to lead the family delegation from the Triangle to San Diego. That Christmas season, Mrs. Semans' holiday card (portraits and group shots of every limb of the family tree) showcased these same-sex newlyweds as though they were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, leaving no question that she embraced them -- completely.

And just last year when my book on gay life was published, she became my private champion, implicitly understanding the importance of marriage equality, aghast at the proposed constitutional amendment in North Carolina that would prohibit same-sex unions. "You are doing such important work," she told me, as I imagined she had told so many others over the years fighting for civil and human rights.

On Monday past, Mary Semans was remembered at a funeral service at Duke Chapel. Among the 1,800 guests, North Carolina's governor, Bev Perdue, and Adam Sobsey, a longtime server from Nana's restaurant. The honorary pallbearers included CBS News' Charlie Rose and Gary Wein, the family's chef for so many years. Black, white, and Latino. Christian, Jew, Muslim. Red staters and blue staters. It was a world one could only imagine. But, then, Mary Semans had made it happen -- again and again. And, in saying goodbye to her, we were now her heirs -- one family under a watchful and loving eye.

Photo: The Duke Endowment

Steven Petrow, a journalist and author of seven books, is a Duke graduate and an A.B. Duke Memorial Scholar.