Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of “SpongeBob SquarePants,” has died at age 57, Nickelodeon announced Tuesday.
Hillenburg was a Humboldt State University alum who studied marine science and art during his tenure at the university. He graduated in 1984 and later went on to create the massively successful cartoon show about a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, which first aired on Nickelodeon in 1999.
“Steve imbued ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere,” the network said in a statement Tuesday. “His utterly original characters and the world of Bikini Bottom will long stand as a reminder of the value of optimism, friendship and the limitless power of imagination.”
Hillenburg was diagnosed with ALS, progressive neurodegenerative disease, last March.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS,” the network said.
In an HSU magazine article, Hillenburg said “being at Humboldt really helped me explore all the things l was interested in.”
Hillenburg and his wife made multiple contributions to furthering marine sciences, including establishing a $135,000 endowment fund for marine science research at HSU in September.
HSU president Lisa Rossbacher said the HSU community is saddened by the loss of Hillenburg and extends her condolences to his wife and family.
“Everyone on campus was impressed by his passion for marine sciences,” she said. “We typically think about scientists and artists on opposite sides, he had an amazing talent for bringing the two together.”
Rossbacher said Hillenburg had an amazing impact on students and the broader community, whether it was educating others about marine science or highlighting HSU as an educational institution. She said it was too soon to say whether a commemorative feature will be constructed on the campus.
“I think one of the ways, no matter what, that we will honor Stephen is to continue to talk about his experience at HSU, his accomplishments and values that in his life he demonstrated,” she said. “I think he might find that more meaningful than a bench or plaque.”
Features of the show Hillenburg created have long been rumored to be based off of local elements, including the “Krusty Krab,” where SpongeBob goes to work. Many believe the fictional fast food restaurant is based on Stars Hamburgers. But Christine Dunn, the former owner of Stars, says it was more likely based off the “Burger Shoppe,” a burger business which occupied the same building before Stars moved in. The building’s exterior has remained virtually unchanged since then, she said.
“People would ask about the relationship all the time and they still do,” she said. “We’d get comments all the time about SpongeBob and whether I was the Krusty owner.”
Dunn maintains she is a nice person and says she is grateful for the urban legend he helped create.
“I’m really sorry to hear that he has passed,” she said. ” ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ is an iconic cartoon, his legend will live on as long as SpongeBob does.”
In a 2006 article published by HSU, Hillenburg reflected on his life.
“I’ve never been the kind of person who tries to schedule their life by following market trends … I think you have to follow your instincts and be really honest with yourself about where your passions lie,” he said. “I think it comes down to following your heart. Of course, there are no guarantees that it will work out the way you think it will. … I’ve been incredibly fortunate.”
The Bay Area News Group contributed to this report. Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506