Joan Ulmer Bretschneider, 69, of Germantown, who started out as a school nurse and worked to upgrade the nursing profession, died Friday, Dec. 14, in her sleep of unknown causes at her home.

Between 1999 and 2008, when she retired, Mrs. Bretschneider worked at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Her last position was director of education and lifelong learning.

For 18 years before that, she was a nursing administrator at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in charge of all departments relating to women and children.

"She connected with people in all walks of life," said her daughter, Pilar Yeakel. "She was caring and thoughtful and a wonderful listener, endlessly generous of her time."

Born in Atlantic City on Valentine's Day 1943, Mrs. Bretschneider attended Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, N.J., where she later served as school nurse.

She received a nursing degree from Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in health education from Temple University.

She had lived in Germantown since 1968.

Throughout her career she was a champion for women and for breast feeding, especially among low-income mothers. She also was a longtime supporter and board member of the Maternity Care Coalition.

She advocated for close collaboration between physicians and nurses to improve patient care, helping both Penn and Jefferson qualify for "magnet" status for quality of nursing care.

Two years ago, she traveled to Botswana to train nurses in leadership skills. At Jefferson, she initiated health services outreach to the Chinatown community.

When she retired in 2008, the Penn hospital established the Joan Bretschneider Award for Nursing Excellence, given to a nurse who exemplifies leadership in working with patients and physicians.

She was also active with St. Vincent DePaul Church in Germantown, which recently merged with two other parishes. Her skills in nurturing and leadership were put to use there as well, her family said.

"She worked with great care in the formation of eucharistic ministers for the merged parishes," said her husband, Bud. She was also on the board of the regional DePaul Catholic Elementary School.

Besides her husband and daughter, she is survived by a son, Martin; a sister; and five grandchildren.

Services have been held. Contributions may be made to DePaul Catholic School, 44 W. Logan St., Philadelphia 19144.

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 215-854-2611 or bcook@phillynews.com.