Ewell Balltrip, the founding executive and President/CEO of the Somerset-based National Institute For Hometown Security, died Thursday after a lengthy chronic illness. He was 68.

Before he moved to Pulaski County in 2005 to originate the NIHS, Balltrip made his mark in the newspaper business. His death comes just two weeks before he is to be inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

Fellow journalists mourned the loss of Balltrip on social media.

"A few weeks before he died, Ewell was notified that he had been chosen for the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame," said Al Cross, Director at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky. "That recognition was long overdue, since he had been out of the news business for 24 years. But his 24 years IN the business are all the more noteworthy in these challenging days for the business -- which pays for journalism."

"I always admired his work as a journalist and afterward," said Tom Caudill, former Managing Editor of The Lexington Herald-Leader. "I'm glad he learned of his much-deserved induction into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame."

As a journalist, Balltrip advanced from a summer intern position at his hometown newspaper, The Harlan Daily Enterprise, to become its publisher. From there, he continued to serve as a publisher with the New York Times Company in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Dyersburg, Tennessee. He has received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Balltrip will be inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 25.

Balltrip is a native of Harlan, and a graduate of Baylor University with degrees in journalism and political science.

Former Commonwealth Journal reporter Jeff Phillips went to work with Balltrip in Harlan in the mid-80s and fondly recalled his time working under the legendary journalist.

"I'll never forget the last visit I had with Ewell in person ... he was in ICU in Somerset awaiting transfer to Vanderbilt. We had a great visit that day," Phillips said on his Facebook page. "We talked about the big stories he covered over the years -- the UMW strikes, the Brookside sludge bond break, the flooding and other natural disasters and the horrific Scotia Mine Disasters. There were two disasters at Oven Fork, the initial explosion killing the miners and the next incident that killed the rescuers. We talked about how he and a photographer managed to access the Scotia site and came out with comprehensive reporting and photography shared around the world.

"I'll never forget getting upset over something, don't remember what, and taking my resignation letter to Ewell in his office when he was still editor," Phillips added. "He opened his drawer, placed the letter on top and said, 'Come back and get it when you change your mind.' I went back the next morning. On my last visit with him I asked if he remembered. He said he didn't, but I know he did.

"(Balltrip) was not my first boss, he was a great boss," Phillips continued. "I learned so much and I would not have survived in the news business without his wit and wisdom."

After departing the newspaper business, Balltrip turned his attention to public service. He was on Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton's staff and headed the Kentucky Appalachian Commission. He was a founding board member and officer of Forward in the Fifth, an education support and promotion group in Kentucky's Fifth Congressional District. He was also chairman of the Harlan County Community Scholarship Fund (which was organized by The Harlan Daily Enterprise) and served on the board of the Southeast Education Foundation at Southeast Community College. In later years, he served on the University of Kentucky Robinson Scholars selection committee and was a member of the national advisory board of the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information. He was also an organizer and board member of the Challenger Learning Center in Hazard, Kentucky.

While at the ARC, Balltrip was responsible for operations and initiatives of a multi-task agency focused on designing and implementing development policies and strategies in the state's Appalachian region. Balltrip also served from May 2002 to February 2004 as the Governor's Alternate to the federal Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), having executive management responsibility for Kentucky's multi-million-dollar Appalachian Regional Commission program and representing Gov. Patton before the ARC. During his tenure, the KAC was recognized twice by the ARC as a "best practice."

Balltrip moved to Somerset in 2005 as President/CEO of The National Institute for Hometown Security -- a position he held until his death. The NIHS is a non-profit organization under contract to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to research and develop solutions for homeland security issues.

In doing so, Balltrip worked closely with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, the Somerset Congressman, whose vision for homeland security in the years following 9/11 helped make NIHS a reality. For Rogers, Balltrip was more than just a colleague -- he was also a friend.

"Ewell was an extraordinary communicator, a brilliant writer and an effective leader for rural development across the country," said Rogers. "His expertise and ingenuity were sought after by countless regional boards and civic organizations. Ewell spent a lifetime advocating for research opportunities and projects that he believed could help prepare Eastern Kentucky for greater success in future generations. His jovial personality and compassionate nature were undeniable and unwavering.

"I counted Ewell as a dear friend and trusted advisor," added Rogers, "and my heartfelt sympathies go out to his entire family and all those who were lucky enough to know him."

Ewell is survived by his wife Kathy Mills Balltrip, son Andrew Lee Balltrip of Lexington, and daughter Amanda Beth Balltrip of Somerset.

Balltrip's full Obituary can be found on Page A3 in today's edition of the Commonwealth Journal.