In an era when most women dared not engage in business, politics or anything that took them outside the home, a farm girl from Illinois broke barriers and ultimately changed the course of Westchester forever.
Ella Lewin was born in 1891, the only daughter of Robert and Alice Lewin, who immigrated to the United States from the Isle of Man in England. Robert arrived in 1856 with just a third-grade education and a deep admiration for statesman Abraham Lincoln, who would soon become president. He eventually found his way to the Land of Lincoln, Illinois, where he worked as a farmhand and eventually saved enough money to purchase his own farm.
Robert had two children, Fenton and Ella, with his second wife, Alice, and the family worked hard raising soy beans, corn and even pigs. As the successful farm began to grow, Robert passed away and Alice became sick. Ella, now in her early 20s, accompanied her mother to Southern California–a spot where the mild winters would be easier on her failing health.
Settling in the Pasadena area, Ella saw to it that her mother regularly visited her doctor, and it didn’t hurt that the doctor’s son was a handsome, young eligible bachelor.
Ella soon struck up a romance with and married Howard Drollinger, Sr., who provided a nice life for his wife and two sons–Howard, Jr., and Robert–as a real estate investor. But while the boys were still in school, Howard, Sr., passed away suddenly, and Ella found herself in the unenviable situation of being a single mother scrambling to make ends meet.
“She said, ‘I have two boys to raise, so I better start investing,’” recalled Karen Dial, Ella’s granddaughter.
Using some money her husband left behind, Ella contacted a real estate advisor that had previously helped her and her husband purchase property near Pico and Robertson. He told her about a burgeoning area near the coast that was just starting to take shape.
“He told her, ‘Someday, Mines Field will become one of the biggest airports in the world,’” Dial recalls.
At the time, there was not much more than bean fields and some rough-and-tumble roads stretching up and down the coast and toward Downtown L.A., but Ella could see the vision. The United States was in the midst of World War II, and airports were a critical cog in the war machine.
Aircraft manufacturing companies all wanted to be close to airports and with those companies came thousands of employees. While other developers such as Fritz B. Burns and William H. Hannon focused on creating housing for all of those workers, it was Ella Drollinger who envisioned a Westchester filled with stores, restaurants and offices to serve the bedroom community that was growing up around the airport.
When a nearby Jim Dandy Market burned to the ground, Ella lobbied long and hard for the company to rebuild its new store in Westchester. She received low-ball offers, and many men in the company dismissed her because she was a woman, but Ella persisted. Eventually, her determination and charm won out, and the Jim Dandy Market, Westchester’s first commercial building, opened its doors in 1943.
“She had a great business mind,” Dial remembers. “She was a no-nonsense woman, and even though they tried, no one could ever pull something over on her.”
As Ella was laying down business roots in Westchester, her son, Howard, was working his way through school. Howard hoped to be a mining engineer and spent two years attending mining school at the University of Arizona, where he spent summers working in the copper mines outside Brisbee, Arizona.
But the war soon came calling.
Howard enlisted in the Army Air Corps, becoming a decorated World War II veteran who flew 50 successful combat missions over Italy as navigator in a B-24 Liberator. Howard was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, four air medals and a Presidential Unit Citation while serving in the 15th Army Air Corps.
When the war was over, Howard, changed his focus and finished school as a business major, earning his degree from the University of Southern California.
In 1947, he joined his mother as a developer, starting the H.B. Drollinger Company.
Not one to hand even her son anything on a silver platter, Ella retained her Ella L. Drollinger Company until Howard had earned his stripes.
“She kept her entity separate,” Dial said. “She wanted to make sure he worked hard and knew what he was doing.”
Surveying the hustle and bustle of today’s Sepulveda Boulevard on a warm, autumn day, Dial just looked around and smiled.
“She’s responsible for all of this. She was an unbelievable visionary, who achieved all of this at a time when real estate was a real man’s world.”
Eventually Ella and Howard merged their companies and continued to work together to achieve her vision of a booming business community.
Perhaps influenced by his grandfather’s love of Lincoln, Howard was an active Republican and met his future wife, Jewel, at a Young Republicans meeting. The couple were soon married and had two children.
“I was born in 1953,” said Dial, who recalled many happy days with her dad checking on the family business. “He would do what he called ‘building inspections’ with me. I brought my pad and pencil, and we wrote down all the things that needed doing at each building. I loved that one-on-one time with my dad. He never thought of it as work, he enjoyed it so much.”
Those who knew Howard knew that he rarely went anywhere without a notepad and pen to keep track of everything that needed doing. Whether it was a squeaky door or a broken piece of tile, it all found its way into Howard’s notepad.
Also remarkable was the way Howard treated each and every person he encountered–a trait learned from his mother, who, though she grew up on an Illinois farm, attended one of the area’s finest finishing schools.
“He taught me all about kindness,” said Dial with a twinkle in her eye. “He was always kind to everyone, no matter what their job was or what their station in life. He knew everyone’s name and all of their families, and he especially cared about the little tenants. He figured the big ones could take care of themselves.”
So, it comes as no surprise that Howard routinely offered rent relief to some of his struggling mom-and-pop tenants. He looked for ways to refer new business to them, and to create relationships among his tenants that would benefit everyone.
“He was always willing to give the little guy a shot,” Dial said.
But in the mid-1970s, he took a shot of his own.
Tiny Mines Field had grown into Los Angeles International Airport, and that meant it needed more space. The airport purchased hundreds of homes surrounding LAX, eliminating many of the shoppers who helped the area flourish. In what Howard called a “double-whammy,” 1975 was the same year Fox Hills Mall (now Westfield Culver City) opened in Culver City, siphoning away some of the best retail tenants who wanted to be part of the area’s newest development.
Westchester, which was once featured in Life magazine as a bustling post-World War II community where a collection of drug stores, restaurants and clothing stores boomed in the post-war economy, was suddenly reeling. The area took a turn for the worse as boarded-up shops and lesser tenants filled the once-bustling Sepulveda Boulevard corridor.
“I never lost faith in Westchester,” Howard said in a 2002 interview. “I knew this community would get through that double whammy.” “He loved Westchester, and he stayed steadfast while others left,” Dial recalled. “He took some big financial hits, but he was going to make sure Westchester succeeded no matter what.”
Howard’s commitment to the community was evident in every letter he wrote. For more than five decades, he signed his personal correspondence, “Yours for a Greater Westchester,” and he put his money where his mouth was.
While other property owners sold, Howard continued to buy. By the early 1990s, Drollinger owned a significant portion of the Central Business District and began redeveloping the area. He oversaw the development of the Westchester Village Center, which today includes CVS, Ralph’s and scores of smaller retailers. In 2003, he built the $25 million The Parking Spot-Sepulveda parking structure to serve airport travelers. He continued to own and manage various office and commercial buildings throughout the Westchester area until he passed away in 2006 at the age of 84, earning the nickname “Mr. Westchester.”
“It makes no difference how many buildings you build or the individual success you might achieve,” Howard said at an event where he was being honored as the 2006 Loyola Marymount University Entrepreneur of the Year. “What really matters, what people will remember, is how you treat your fellow man.”
Known as a hard-nosed businessman, Howard certainly had a soft side and treated his fellow man with compassion and generosity. He was known for giving a helping hand to fledgling entrepreneurs and for supporting those who shared his passion for the community.
A Westchester Rotarian since 1952, Howard donated millions of dollars to local organizations. His contributions had an immeasurable impact on the community, helping to do everything from feed the hungry and provide additional educational materials to local schools to provide services for the mentally ill and recreational opportunities for adults and children.
He was a longtime contributor and supporter of many organizations that formed the crux of the community, including the Westchester Family YMCA, the Westchester/LAX–Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce (now the LAX Coastal Chamber), Loyola Marymount University, Airport Marina Counseling Service and scores of local youth sports teams and schools.
In addition, his generous donations through the Westchester Rotary Foundation assisted in sending young scholars to other countries for educational purposes, clothing underprivileged children, repairing the local fire station, teaching students to read, painting out graffiti and many other initiatives. His contributions to Rotary International helped to promote international projects, including the organization’s goal of eradicating polio from the entire globe–a mission that is nearly complete.
Drollinger served as President of the Westchester Chamber of Commerce, was Honorary Mayor of Westchester and President of the Rotary Club of Westchester, where he maintained perfect attendance for more than 50 years. He also served as a member of the City of Los Angeles Board of Zoning Appeals, Mayor Tom Bradley’s Committee on Capital Improvements and was a founding member of the Westchester Vitalization Corporation.
He was honored by scores of organizations for his efforts and was the recipient of the 2005 Fritz B. Burns Outstanding Community Service and Leadership Award, the Rotary Club of Westchester’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Westchester Family YMCA’s Community Builder Award and the chamber’s Helmsman Leadership Award.
“Howard was a Westchester institution who gave tirelessly for the benefit of the community he called ‘home,’” said Kathleen Aikenhead, President of the William H. Hannon Foundation. “My uncle would tell me how he and Howard would ‘challenge’ each other on donations to various civic groups. My uncle would donate, if Howard donated, and vice versa. They had fun together as they were both Westchester pioneers.”
Dial took over the family business in 2006 and shares her time between Westchester and Missoula, Montana. At the helm of Westchester’s oldest and largest property management firm in Westchester’s central business district, Dial has overseen beautification improvements to numerous properties, including most recently, the Paradise Building on Sepulveda Boulevard, which has a new sign that boldly proclaims the historic building’s name.
The company’s newest acquisition is a corner property in the Westchester Triangle that will house Gatsby’s Westchester–an independent book store that will have a café and book readings.
Today, Dial, her brother Jim Drollinger, and their families carry on the Drollinger commitment to philanthropy and community through the Drollinger Family Charitable Foundation.
Though the Foundation does not actively seek grant applications, Dial said the family is focused on what is most important to them.
“We like to donate to the organizations that are local and mean something to us,” she said. “You often lose track of where your money goes and what it does when you give to a national organization. It’s more fulfilling to give back to the community that raised us.”
The Foundation has helped support everything from community mental health efforts at the Airport Marina Counseling Service to providing yoga classes to our local schools. Last month, the foundation was the title sponsor for the inaugural WAM Block Party.
“It’s all about making a difference in our back yard,” Dial said. “That’s certainly what my dad and my grandmother would have wanted.”
By Geoff Maleman.
Posted October 2016.