Top Ten Stories of 2012: No. 5

Their lives left us richer
Dec. 26, 2012 @ 06:50 PM

Four giants in philanthropy, sports, education and entertainment with ties to the Durham area died in 2012, leaving a rich legacy locally and nationwide.

- Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a Duke descendent who was as generous as she was unassuming, lived much of her life in Durham before passing away on Jan. 25 at the age of 91. She served as the city’s mayor pro tem, trustee at Duke University and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation – named for her mother – and other family foundations.

She worked for affordable housing in Durham and served on the board of Lincoln Community Health Center, which serves low-income residents.

Duke President Richard Brodhead said Mrs. Semans “supported every good thing that has happened to this university.”

“Mary Semans was a great public servant,” said the late William Friday, former UNC president. “She entered every worthy cause with great enthusiasm because she knew she could make things happen and change would come. North Carolina will greatly miss this noble lady.”

- Dr. LeRoy Walker, who made his mark in track and field and enabled Durham to put its stamp on the world map, was a man for all seasons. He was the first black person to coach a U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team and the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

He died on April 23 at the age of 93.

“There goes the smartest individual I’ve ever met in my entire life,” former N.C. Central University hurdler and Olympian Charles Foster said of Walker.

Dr. Walker created NCCU’s track program, and coached the university’s football and basketball teams.

He coached NCCU’s athletes to 11 Olympic medals and sent track-and-field athletes to every Olympic Games from 1956 to 1980. He served as NCCU’s vice chancellor from 1974-83 before leading the university as chancellor from 1983-86.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said people often mention Dr. Walker’s name when he’s traveling and find out he’s from Durham.

“He made Durham home,” Bell said. “He helped put Durham on the map.”

- Dr. William Friday, who died Oct. 12 at the age of 92, exemplified honor and integrity as president of UNC for 30 years. He steered the university through desegregation, challenges to free speech and conversion to a 16-campus university system.

He knew how to disagree without being disagreeable, and to bring out the best in nearly everyone.

Dr. Friday never really retired. When he stepped down as UNC president in 1986, he continued interviewing North Carolinians for his UNC-TV show, “North Carolina People.”

He never faked sincerity, because it seemed part of his DNA. His love of education and interest in students made him a perfect fit for a university.

“Bill Friday lived a life that exemplified everything that has made our university – and the state of North Carolina – great,” UNC President Tom Ross said.

Wade Hargrove, chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees, said “the university system stands on the shoulders of Dr. Friday and his lifetime commitment to higher education and the betterment of North Carolinians.”

- Andy Griffith, who died July 3 at age 86, may have been the most popular sheriff in the United States who was never elected.

As Sheriff Andy Taylor in the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry, Griffith brought the world one of the most beloved television programs in history – “The Andy Griffith Show.” It ran from 1960 to 1968, and continues in syndication.

Ron Howard, who played Opie on the show, said the program reflected Griffith’s tastes and values. Its sharply chiseled characters like Deputy Barney Fife and Otis the town drunk were easy to love and hard to forget.

Griffith grew up in Mount Airy – after which Mayberry was modeled – and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. He never forgot his North Carolina roots, and maintained a home for years on Roanoke Island, where he is buried.

“North Carolina has lost its favorite son,” Gov. Beverly Perdue said. “Throughout his career, he represented everything that was good about North Carolina.”
 

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