Stephen Hillenburg, creator of SpongeBob SquarePants, has died. He was 57.
The Oklahoma native first announced that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2017. His employer of 25 years, Nickelodeon, confirmed the writer, director and showrunner’s death to Polygon on Tuesday.
“We are incredibly saddened by the news that Steve Hillenburg has passed away following a battle with ALS. 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.”
The network has also asked fans to take a moment of silence in Hillenburg’s memory on its Twitter account.
Although Hillenburg’s health struggles began in 2017, he continued to work on his massively popular cartoon up until his death. After taking time away from the series following the release of The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie in 2004, Hillenburg handed over the showrunning reins to longtime creative partner Paul Tibbitt. But ahead of the release of the second SpongeBob film, SpongeBob SquarePants: Fish Out of Water, Hillenburg returned to work on the cartoon full-time.
SpongeBob SquarePants began in 1999, and will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary. Hillenburg hit another milestone this year, however: his 25th year at Nickelodeon. He began his first animation job in 1993, joining Joe Murray and the rest of the newcomer staff to direct the surrealist comedy Rocko’s Modern Life. Many of his colleagues from that show followed him over to SpongeBob SquarePants following the end of that series in 1996. SpongeBob has since become the longest-running series in Nickelodeon history and, along with two feature films, even spawned a Tony-nominated Broadway play. Another movie is in the works.
A love of oceanography gave birth to the story of a simple-minded, ever-positive sponge. Hillenburg spoke often of his dedication to not only the field of traditional animation, but marine life; he even worked as a marine biologist before studying the art form. Just this past September, Hillenburg donated $135,000 to his alma mater, Humboldt State University, toward a grant that will support marine biology students with their research projects.