Bernadine Heaton Ralston Biography – 2013 FCSHOF Inductee
Viola Bernadine Heaton Ralston was a very, very good basketball player at Mineral Bluff School, Epworth High School and Fannin County High School in Morganton during the mid 1940s. In fact, she was so good that the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame has selected her as a charter member of the class of 2013.
Bernadine was the fourth of seven children born to S.V. and Jessie Nichols Heaton of Mineral Bluff, Georgia. Her three older siblings, Kell, Doug and Pauline all played basketball at Mineral Bluff so Bernadine was introduced to the game early in life. She and her siblings played a lot of basketball in the yard, but they did not always have a real basketball to use. Bernadine remembers one occasion when her older brothers took the bladder of a hog recently slaughtered, blew it up, stitched the seams and used it for a basketball. The Heaton kids took their hoops seriously.
She made the school basketball team for the first time in 1940-41 when she was a 6th grader. During that 1940-41 basketball season, Bernadine, Kell, Doug and Pauline were all members of the Mineral Bluff teams.
When Bernadine was a school girl, students in Fannin County and most of Georgia earned a high school diploma after successfully completing 11 years of school. The four high schools in Fannin County (Epworth, Blue Ridge, McCaysville and Fannin County High in Morganton) were comprised of grades 8 through 11. 8th graders were freshmen, 9th graders sophomores, 10th graders juniors and 11th grade-students were seniors. Armed with a high school diploma, Fannin County students were ready to enter college or any field that required a high-school education in those days.
The school at Mineral Bluff included grades one through nine. Grades 7, 8 and 9 were referred to as ‘Junior High School’ grades, making Mineral Bluff the only school in the county with this distinction. For athletic competition, the Mineral Bluff teams played both elementary schools and high schools since there were no other schools in the area falling into their ‘hybrid’ category. Mineral Bluff teams were included in the local tournaments including the Fannin County Tournament and the Bi-State Tournament, but were not eligible to participate in the official Georgia District and State Tourneys against high school teams.
Bernadine Heaton played basketball for the Mineral Bluff team for four seasons, earning a reputation as one of the finest players in the area. After her final year at Mineral Bluff she had two years of high school remaining and, of course, two more years of basketball eligibility.
During the 1930s and 40s, rules and regulations concerning residence requirements for attending the local schools were not nearly as structured as today. If a student could find transportation to a school, he or she could attend that school. A student living in Georgia could even attend the schools in Copperhill or Ducktown, Tennessee if that student’s parents were willing to pay a small tuition and were able to get the student to and from school.
In the fall of 1944, J.E. ‘Preacher’ Nichols was the coach of the Epworth High School basketball teams. Preacher was a very competitive man and was able to persuade Bernadine’s mother to allow her to travel over to the west side of the county to play basketball during her junior year in high school. She boarded with a local family in Epworth and returned home to Mineral Bluff on weekends or as needed.
Bernadine averaged about 17.5 point per game for the 1944-45 Epworth girls team, leading them to the Fannin County and Bi-State Tournament Championships. In the Bi-State tourney, Bernadine scored 20 points in leading Epworth to a big victory over Copperhill High in the semi-finals and was named to the all-tournament team. Epworth later advanced to the championship game of the 9th district Class C tournament at Gainesville before losing by a two-point margin.
Between Bernadine’s junior and senior years in high school, Clyde Henry assumed the duties of principal and basketball coach at Fannin County High School in Morganton. Henry’s competitiveness rivaled that of Preacher Nichols, and he was able to keep Bernadine closer to home to play for his team at Morganton in 1945-46. With Bernadine scoring at a 20 points per game clip, the Fannin County girls won 28 consecutive games before losing in the state championship game at Macon. Bernadine averaged 23 points per game in the state tournament and was named to the Class B all-state team for her efforts. She and teammate Bunzie Johnson had dream seasons during the 1945-46 campaign and both have been selected as members of the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame inaugural class.
Following her graduation from high school, Bernadine was recruited to play AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball for the Lorelei Ladies team based in Atlanta. The amateur teams of that era traveled around the Southeast to play games against the best competition available in women’s basketball at the time. The Lorelei Ladies management agreed to find Bernadine a job where she would work when not on the road with the team. They also offered to provide her with a place to stay in Atlanta.
Once again, the recruitment needed the approval of Bernadine’s mom, Jessie. She finally agreed to allow Bernie to make the move on the condition that she would live with her sister Pauline, whose home was in Atlanta, when not traveling. The details were worked out and Bernadine Heaton became a member of the Lorelei Ladies amateur basketball team.
Bernadine stayed with the Lorelei Ladies for two years and then joined another Atlanta-based amateur team called the Sports Arena Blues. The Blues were one of the best teams in the nation and had won the AAU National Championship in 1945-46. Bernadine played with the Blues for one season and returned home to Morganton following the 1948-49 season.
Upon her return to Fannin County, Bernie met a young man named John Winston Ralston whose family owned and operated a successful lumber and sawmilling business near Morganton. Bernadine was smitten with the young man and the feeling was obviously reciprocated. Bernie said that Winston was “the best looking boy in Fannin County—–plus he had a convertible“.
The management of the Sports Arena Blues tried to persuade Bernadine to rejoin the team in 1950. They even offered her the opportunity to barnstorm with the team in Europe for several months. But Bernie was in love and turned them down. Her basketball career was over.
In 1951 Bernadine married John Winston Ralston of Morganton. Ralston worked in the family business and he and Bernadine settled in the Morganton area. Winston became a State Farm Insurance agent in 1959 and worked with that company in Blue Ridge until his retirement in 1995. Bernadine worked as a physical therapy assistant for a time at hospitals in Ellijay and Blairsville.
Bernadine and Winston have three children, Liz, Scott and Carole. All three starred in athletics while students at West Fannin and Fannin County High Schools and all three say that Bernadine is a “great mom“. Bernadine and Winston reside in Ellijay, Georgia.