Howard Blaine Drollinger, a philanthropist and developer whose vision and commitment to Westchester helped turn an area filled with bean fields and dirt roads into a thriving community, has died. He was 84.

Drollinger, who was widely known as “Mr. Westchester” and had recently joined Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his successful efforts to halt the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, died of lung cancer Sunday, August 13th, at his family home in Playa del Rey with his family by his side.

A decorated World War II veteran who flew 50 successful combat missions over Italy as navigator in a B-24 Liberator, Drollinger was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, four air medals and a Presidential Unit Citation while serving in the 15th Army Air Force.

When the war was over, Drollinger, a proud graduate of the University of Southern California, joined his mother, Ella, as a developer in Westchester, a fledgling community just north of what would become Los Angeles International Airport.

“Howard Drollinger was a true community hero in Westchester and throughout the City of Los Angeles,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “He was a successful businessman and philanthropist, but most importantly he was a friend to many. He will be greatly missed.”

“He changed the whole face of the community,” said Congresswoman Jane Harman. “There is a Drollinger mark on everything in Westchester. He was a legend.”

“You can’t go anywhere in Westchester without seeing the work that Howard has done,” said State Sen. Debra Bowen. “He poured his heart and soul into the community he loved and into so many charitable organizations. Howard had true friends from all walks of life and across the political spectrum. We will all miss his lion’s heart, his principled stands and his generous spirit.”

Drollinger’s investment in the community helped turn the sleepy post-war town into a thriving community with a bustling shopping district full of retail stores, many of which were H.B. Drollinger Co. tenants.

Drollinger’s mother, Ella, built Westchester’s first commercial building in 1944, but by the mid-1950s, thanks to Drollinger’s efforts, Westchester’s Central Business District was featured in Life Magazine as a flourishing commercial district that was helping the surrounding residential area take root in the wake of World War II.

When Fox Hills Mall opened in Culver City and LAX expanded in 1975, removing thousands of homes and shoppers from the Westchester area, many retailers and property owners fled. 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,” Drollinger said in a 2002 interview. “I knew this community would get through that double whammy.”

Drollinger’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, Drollinger continued to buy. By the early 1990s, Drollinger owned a significant portion of the Central Business District and began redeveloping the area. Since then, he has overseen the development of the Ralphs Westchester Village Center, which includes Longs Drugs, Blockbuster Video and scores of smaller retailers.

In 2003, he developed The Parking Spot-Sepulveda, a $25-million parking structure to serve airport travelers.

He continued to own and manage various office and commercial buildings throughout the Westchester area.

“It makes no difference how many buildings you build or the individual success you might achieve,” Drollinger 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, Drollinger certainly had a soft side and he 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, Drollinger donated millions of dollars to local organizations. His contributions had an immeasurable impact on the community, helping to do everything from feeding the hungry and providing additional educational materials to local schools to providing 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 Union Rescue Mission, Westchester Family YMCA, Westchester/ LAX-Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce, 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 by 2008 — a mission that is nearly complete.

“For decades, Howard Drollinger defined civic leadership in Westchester,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. “Building on his mother’s legacy, he helped give birth to downtown Westchester.

“Howard always put his community first — whether it was by fighting LAX expansion, spearheading economic development, or lending his name, his time and his resources to community beautification projects. Howard was a treasure. He left our world a better place.”

“Howard was a friend for over 20 years,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. “He not only made Westchester a better place, but he made everything he touched better because he epitomized what it meant to be part of the greatest generation.”

Drollinger served as president of the Westchester Chamber of Commerce (predecessor of the Westchester/LAX-Marina del Rey Chamber), 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 and Mayor Tom Bradley’s Committee on Capital Improvements and he was a founding member of the Westchester Vitalization Corporation. He was also a life member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.

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 Westchester/LAXñMarina del Rey Chamber of Commerce’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. Howard will be missed by the Hannon family, and we know that he is in heaven today.”

Drollinger is survived by his brother, Bob Drollinger; second wife, Margaret Drollinger; daughter, Karen Dial; son, Jim Drollinger; daughter-in-law, Andrea Furtivo; son-in-law Ken Dial; and grandchildren Terry and Natalie Dial. He was preceded in death by his wife of 46 years, Jewel Drollinger, who passed away in 1996.

Services for Drollinger will be held at 11 a.m. on Thursday, August 17th, at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester.

In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations be made to the Drollinger Family Charitable Foundation, a foundation created by Drollinger to continue his longstanding support of worthwhile community organizations. Donations can be mailed to the Foundation at 8929 S. Sepulveda Blvd. #130, Westchester 90045.