Former longtime Westchester resident John R. Ottina, the 20th U.S. commissioner of education and assistant secretary of administration and management in the former federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) has died. He was 76.

Ottina, who had lived in Westchester for 55 years, died at his home in Marshall, Virginia Tuesday, September 30th, of pancreatic cancer, his family said.

While at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Ottina was known for his low-key but forceful approach, and his ability to get to the heart of an issue, his family said.

“He worked to simplify the complex organizational structure and to increase the authority and performance of HEW’s regional offices,” said Frank C. Carlucci, former secretary of defense and deputy secretary of HEW. “With John in administration, we never had to worry whether things were being done right. We knew they were.”

A mathematician by training, Ottina “enjoyed tackling complicated problems, yet his style was self-effacing, which endeared him to his peers and his subordinates,” Carlucci noted.

Born in Los Angeles to parents who had immigrated from the Piemonte region of Italy, Ottina was raised speaking Italian. He picked up Spanish in his neighborhood of Watts and learned English upon entering public school at 79th Street Elementary School.

Ottina’s mother, Mary Maga Ottina, who is 104 years old, still lives in Westchester, friends said.

He taught mathematics and was a counselor in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and later worked as vice president of the military division of System Development Corporation.

After leaving government service at Health, Education and Welfare in 1977, he was a vice president of American Management Systems of northern Virginia.

Ottina was a graduate of the

University of California-Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate.

Upon his retirement in 1990, Ottina worked on perfecting his already well-known culinary skills and crafted furnishings for homes he designed in northern Virginia and Naples, Florida, his family said.

A Trustee Emeritus of the Kennedy Center, Ottina was known in the Washington, D.C. area for his support of the Wolf Trap Foundation. Ottina and his wife, Mollie Wiggins Ottina, served as chairs for eight major events for Wolf Trap from 1985-2000, including several balls and the opening night of the first Nordstrom on the East Coast.

Ottina is survived by his wife, Mollie Wiggins Ottina; his mother, Mary Maga Ottina; three sons, John Michael, James Lawrence and David Louis; a sister and brother-in-law, Irene and Gene Newton; and a nephew, Andrew Markie, his wife, Heather, and a grandniece, Chloe Markie.

Private services in celebration of Ottina’s life will be held in the Washington area and in Naples. Contributions in his memory can be made to the Wolf Trap Foundation, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Program/Collier Health Services of Collier County, Florida, or the David Lawrence Foundation of Collier County.