Regal: Princess Irene, second from right, in front of Duke Chapel with a Duke-Durham contingent that included Mary Semans, second from left. [Duke University Archives]
Regal: Princess Irene, second from right, in front of Duke Chapel with a Duke-Durham contingent that included Mary Semans, second from left. [Duke University Archives]

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Royal Treatment

Duke put on its best for Princess Irene’s visit.
June 4, 2012

With an architectural style reminiscent of European castles, Duke’s West Campus looks like a place where you might find a princess. And on a Sunday in January 1967, it was.

That day, Duke was visited by Her Royal Highness Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of the late King Paul of Greece and younger sister of King Constantine II, the last of Greece’s kings. An accomplished concert pianist, she had come to America as part of a six-week tour of the U.S., sponsored by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. But it was her friendship with two of Duke’s most steadfast supporters, Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans ’39, Hon. ’83 and James Semans, Hon. ’99, that brought her to North Carolina.

The Semanses had met Princess Irene in Greece in 1965 at a dinner party at the home of Gina Bachauer, a well-known concert pianist who mentored the princess on piano. Bachauer had toured throughout the U.S., including visits to Duke’s Department of Music, and was well-acquainted with the Semanses, who were active supporters of music performance and education. The princess shared their interests in music education, and the couple remained friendly with both women.

Princess Irene arrived in Winston-Salem on Saturday, January 28, 1967, where she toured the North Carolina School of the Arts with Mary Semans. From there, the entourage traveled to Durham. That evening, Duke senior John Ruggero ’67 and music professor Paul Earls, among other musicians, performed a recital for the royal party at Pinecrest, the Semanses’ estate in Durham.

On Sunday, the princess toured the Duke campus, with stops at Duke Chapel and carillon tower and the library’s Biddle Rare Book Room, where she examined a collection of Greek manuscripts. A luncheon was held in the Old Trinity Room of the West Union building. Attendees included Duke administrators, North Carolina Gov. Dan K. Moore, U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin, Durham Mayor Wense Grabarek, and a number of prominent members of the Durham Greek community. The Durham Herald reported, “Several Greek dishes were served along with an entrée of Breast of Chicken Smithfield with supreme sauce. The princess, a vegetarian, was served a special egg dish.” Following the luncheon, the princess met with more than 200 residents of Greek descent and was served homemade Greek desserts by women of Durham’s Greek community.

The most intimate brush with royalty, however, was reserved for two Duke students. Steve Sapp ’68 and John Alden ’67 were selected to serve as chauffeurs for the royal party, ushering the princess and her traveling companions from Winston-Salem and around campus. The Durham Sun reported that the students “stated that they did not know why they were chosen for this honor, but both agreed that the experience had been most enjoyable and they were impressed by Princess Irene’s informality and charm.” One remarked that he was impressed the princess introduced herself to him at the Winston-Salem airport.

Mary Semans—a member of Duke’s royal family in her own right—came away with a similar impression of Princess Irene’s warmth and modesty. Semans described her in the Durham Sun as “so gracious and so informal—she just couldn’t be easier to have around.”

Though brief, the princess’ visit stands out as an opportunity for Duke to highlight its treasures and its ambitions to be recognized as a global university. It also brought a moment of glamour to a rapidly changing campus, where students were increasingly active in Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Duke was a place of debate and discussion—and often disagreement. But for one sunny Sunday afternoon forty-five years ago, Duke and Durham were fit for a princess.