Remembering Stephen Hillenburg, Creator of SpongeBob SquarePants

PERHAPS THERE’S NO MORE ICONIC UNDERSEA LIFE than a simple, yellow lifeform named SpongeBob SquarePants.

This animated character, born of HSU alumnus Stephen Hillenburg’s love for art and the ocean, is a worldwide phenomenon and an inspiration for generations of kids and adults.

Stephen died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, in 2018 at age 57, but his creations and his commitment to education live on.

He was born in Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma and later moved to Southern California. He graduated from HSU with a degree in Natural Resources Planning and Interpretation in 1984, but midway through his education he realized he was drawn to art even more than the sciences. His fascination with tide pools and the natural world, combined with a unique sense of humor, led to the creation of SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999.

Stephen never expected the quirky fry cook who lives in a pineapple in the Pacific Ocean to generate such an adoring and massive fan-base. In 2006, he told the Humboldt Stater: “I never dreamed I’d be doing this in life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I feel like I just lucked out—seriously.”

Last year, Stephen and his wife, Karen, created the Stephen Hillenburg Marine Science Research Award Endowment at HSU with a gift to provide grant awards for student research projects in the marine sciences. This gift will help future generations of student scientists—who possibly grew up watching a sea sponge and his aquatic friends—learn about every other creature living under the sea.