'SpongeBob Squarepants' creator Stephen Hillenburg dies at 57

'SpongeBob Squarepants' creator Stephen Hillenburg dies at 57

Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the insanely popular Nickelodeon cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants, died on Monday. He was 57. The cause of death was Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as ALS, a progressive disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is no known cure. Hillenburg revealed that he was diagnosed with the fatal illness in March 2017.

"We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS," said Nickelodeon said in a statement. "He was a beloved friend and long-time creative partner to everyone at Nickelodeon, and our hearts go out to his entire family. Steve imbued 'SpongeBob SquarePants' with a unique sense of humor and innocence that has brought joy to generations of kids and families everywhere. 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."

Spongebob Squarepants creator Credit: Getty

The animated series sprouted from a lifetime of experience. At Humboldt State University, Hillenburg earned a bachelor's degree in Natural Resource Planning and Interpretation, with an emphasis on marine resources. He went to become a marine biology teacher at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California. Sometimes he wrote and illustrated stories with sea creatures for the students - the early versions of the beloved characters in Bikini Bottom. (Those students in the mid-80's didn't know how lucky they were.)

In 1987, Hillenburg began pursuing a career in animation. At the California Institute of Arts in Valencia, he studied Experimental Animation and earned his Master of Fine Arts. In 1992, he created the award-winning animated short Wormholes, which was shown at various film festivals. He scored his first job in television as a director and writer on Nickelodeon's animated series Rocko's Modern Life. (That cartoon centered on the surreal life of an Australian wallaby and his quirky friends in the fictional town of O-Town.

Spongebob Squarepants Credit: Nickelodeon

After learning the ropes of television on Rocko, Hillenburg created SpongeBob Squarepants. The first episode aired on Nickelodeon in 1999, and today the series is still going strong. As of this writing, there have been twelve seasons, and two movies, with a third movie, It's a Wonderful Sponge, scheduled for release in 2020. (I asked my boss if I could binge-watch every episode of SpongeBob before writing this article, but alas, he wouldn't let me.)

Throughout its nearly 250 episode run, Spongebob has entertained both children and adults. (And inspired many, many memes.) Although Hillenburg is gone, his hilarious, unique creations will be enjoyed for many generations to come. At 57, he died far too young, but he had a pretty incredible life. The Spongebob Squarepants series married his two passions, marine biology and animation. Hillenburg spent his life doing what he loved and left an indelible mark on pop culture.

Our condolences go out to his friends and family.