A Life: Francis J. Maville, 1936 — 2013; ‘He Was Pretty Much the Man That You Saw’
Francis Maville manning the fryolator at Muriel's Donuts in Feb. 2005. (Courtesy photograph)
Francis Maville returns from a hunt in Hanover Center with a bear and its cub in Nov. 1966. (Courtesy photograph)
Lebanon — Whether you knew him for his confectionery treats or as an elected representative, if you lived in Lebanon during the later decades of the 20th century, chances are you knew of Francis Maville.
“They called him ‘The Donut Man’ or ‘Mr. Mayor,’” said Muriel Maville, his wife of 56 years.
After working for 13 years at the Split Ball Bearing factory on Mechanic Street, Maville left his job in 1967 to inherit the iconic storefront on 20 West St. from his aunt, who was running her own donut company. A native of Lebanon, Maville named the shop “Muriel’s Donuts” after his wife, who ran the business with him for more than 50 years before Francis Maville died on March 26 at 76.
Sitting at the dining room table of their home in hilly downtown Lebanon, Muriel Maville reflected on how the two of them revamped the donut business from “just an old fashioned donut” to a selection that included crullers, jellied donuts and sugared donuts. Together, they grew the business from just four accounts to more than 20 along with a thriving delivery business.
“It worked out great for us, because it’s a mom and pop business,” Muriel Maville said. “So that’s how we did it.”
In the 1970s, Francis Maville served five two-year terms as a city councilor and was elected as mayor for the last term. His familiarity with city government resulted in a flock of city councilors who circulated through the donut shop often enough to earn it the nickname of “Little City Hall,” along with the other stomping ground of Dulac’s Hardware on Mechanic Street.
Standing in the corner of the shop, flanked by a fryolator and the store counter, Francis could wear both hats — those of Mr. Mayor and The Donut Man — at once, although the confectionery component sometimes took a hit.
“Sometimes you wouldn’t get much done,” Muriel Maville conceded.
In the mid-1950s, Muriel was graduating from Hanover High School just as Francis was graduating from Lebanon High School. The two met while still attending school and got married shortly after graduation.
“We just complimented each other,” said Muriel Maville. “He was an easy person to get along with.”
The couple had five sons together, which led to 13 grandchildren who range from 7 to 40 years-old. Muriel said that Francis always put family ahead of everything else.
Terri Dudley, who followed Francis Maville as mayor, said she was friends with him for many years, both through City Hall and because she frequented the donut shop. Dudley said the Mavilles had a “terrific marriage.
“They had something very special ... The two of them always acted as though they had just become newlyweds,” she said.
Dudley added that Francis was “very protective” of Muriel, and “always felt that she worked too hard, which she always has done.”
For her part, Muriel said that Francis regularly worked 16-hour days, getting up at sunrise to make donuts and staying out until around 9 p.m. delivering them. Even after he lost his leg to a staph infection from a knee replacement in 2007, Muriel said, Francis would spend his time packaging donuts, and always expected to return to work.
Retirement, she said, simply wasn’t on his radar, which she estimated was a product of growing up on the heels of the Depression era.
“If you own a business, you think you’re indispensable, because everybody tells you are,” Muriel Maville said.
But the Mavilles didn’t just represent that era in their work ethic. Historian Carl Porter said that their donut shop was a relic of the old mill worker community, which had been Lebanon’s economic engine. For that reason, Porter described Muriel’s Donuts as “something that’s truly Lebanon.”
“It’s one of the few last little community gathering places that’s been here for a very long time,” he said, adding that the store has a loyal following built up over the course of generations.
Having spent all his 76 years in Lebanon, concern for his community rippled through Maville’s actions as city councilor and mayor. Pam Bean, who served on the council with Maville, said the two of them were on opposite poles of the political spectrum, but they always got along despite their ideological differences.
“When I first came on, he thought I was probably a bleeding heart ... and I thought he was extremely conservative,” Bean said. “As we worked together, we found that we both had good points.”
Bean, who was mayor when Maville was assistant mayor, said that she was shy as a public official. When she would get nervous about public speeches and ribbon-cuttings, Maville was there to take her place. Bean said that Maville “knew everybody” in Lebanon, and thrived in public settings.
City Councilor Erling Heistad, a Lebanon native, said that he knew of Muriel’s Donuts “forever,” but he didn’t start communicating with Maville until he was appointed to the council in 2011. Maville would call Heistad to share his thoughts on city business and offer his advice on being a councilor. Hesitad added that Maville rarely minced his words.
“He was pretty much the man that you saw,” he said.
Heistad said that in his later years, Maville was worried about Lebanon in “most all ways,” but his primary concern was the tax burden, which he felt was driving out residents of Lebanon that have lived on their family-farmed land for generations.
“He was driven by a love for Lebanon and a concern for the regular person, the normal resident that he had known living here forever and ever,” said Heistad. “And we both saw that population as perhaps being underserved.”
Muriel Maville couldn’t pinpoint what pushed her husband to get involved in city government. She said he was a conservative and described him as proud of what Lebanon had grown into, even if he did have issues with some aspects of the city’s development. As for what motivated him, she guessed it was “just the fact that he grew up in Lebanon and saw the town change.”
When Francis was a school-aged boy in Lebanon, he and his friends would ice skate across Hanover Street and ski on the hilly roads of downtown Lebanon’s residential districts, which Muriel Maville described as “making your own fun.”
“Back then you’d do things like that, and pack a lunch,” she said. “Those are the kind of things he liked as a kid.”
When Francis Maville graduated Lebanon High School, he took a job at a grocery store, then worked several other manual labor jobs until ending up at Split Ball Bearing, where he worked his way up to foreman. But he was stuck working the night shift, and when the company heads told him he wouldn’t be able to get a day shift anytime soon, that’s when Francis made his own way.
“He decided he’d had enough of the nights working, so he said, ‘Want to buy a donut business?’ ” said Muriel Maville. “So we did, and it’s been off and running ever since.”
While Muriel said his coworkers at Split Ball Bearing thought he was crazy for buying the business, success wasn’t a longshot in Francis’ mind.
“He would have expected it,” she said. “And with my help, and his, we just made it work.”
In his free time, Francis Maville loved to go hunting in Lyme and Hanover Center. While he never caught a deer, Muriel said he once came home with two bears, a mother and its cub. Francis also loved to fish and owned a camp on Miller Pond in Grantham.
Aside from running the donut shop, he and Muriel Maville also rented out an apartment building on Granite Street, as well as apartments in the donut building. Since Maville died in March, Muriel has taken a hiatus from donut-making, but said she was considering returning to her labor-of-love in the coming weeks.
Francis Maville connected with his community in many ways, but he reached the most people through his donuts.
That was something Heistad found especially poignant.
“It’s the idea that you are of value, and what you do is of value,” said Heistad. “Honoring the fact that the product of your hand is an integral and important part of yourself, and your community, and how you fit into that community.”
Ben Conarck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.