Karen Dial

Seventy-five years ago developer Frank H. Ayres took business-woman Ella Drollinger out for a drive to explore a budding neighborhood around Mines Field, a dirt landing strip surrounded by bean fields that Ayres told her would someday become one of the world’s largest airports.

“He was spot on, but how he knew that I have no idea,” says Karen Dial, whose grandmother Ella funded construction of the first commercial building in Westchester — an independent grocer called Jim Dandy — and whose father, Howard B. Drollinger, went on to build and manage much of the neighborhood’s central business district.

Some of Dial’s fondest childhood memories in the late 1950s and early ’60s include walking across the street from her parents’ home at 77th and Arizona to spend time with dad at the family’s Niagara Car Wash, grab a bite together at a burger joint on Sepulveda called Pepe’s, or drive around the neighborhood to inspect buildings for sale or under construction. At Orville Wright Junior High she started going steady with classmate Ken Dial, who would take her out for beer-boiled hot dogs at Lum’s, 25-cent movies, candy bars at Sav-On and dreamy afternoons staring up at the bellies of planes from the unfenced grassy knolls along the LAX runway.

As president of both Drollinger Properties and the Drollinger Family Charitable Foundation, Dial is on a mission to shepherd Westchester into a dynamic future — “we need to nurture more of a college-town vibe,” she says — while nourishing organizations that cement neighborhood bonds and preserve Westchester’s small-town feel.

The foundation, for example, helps bankroll Westside Pacific Villages’ volunteer network in support of independent senior living, youth and family programing at the Westchester Family YMCA, and the Airport Marina Counseling Service’s low-cost mental health clinic and counseling programs in local schools. Dial, a dedicated yoga enthusiast, is also on a spree of sponsoring murals and other public art.

The company, meanwhile, is willing to forego quick profits to nurture opportunities for local independent retailers — even if that means holding spaces for a year or two, or Dial conceiving and executing her own business plans. Next year she plans to open an independent bookstore, café and multipurpose community event space next to Ayara Thai Cuisine in the Westchester Triangle, a building where she hung out as a kid when it was Karl’s Toy Store.

There may be a lot more traffic these days, but in many ways Westchester is still like the town Dial grew up in and isn’t all that different from her other home in Missoula, where her husband is a professor of biology at the University of Montana.

“Westchester still has a community feel where a lot of people know each other from social circles that intertwine, like some of the people at the YMCA go to
the same church or synagogue and like to meet at The Coffee Co. for breakfast on Saturdays,” she says. “When people want to know what a community looks like, they could to look us. We can be that model.”

— Joe Piasecki