Nickelodeon announced Tuesday the beloved writer and animator of its mega-popular children's show had lost his battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
“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,” the network said in a statement.
"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.”
Social media erupted with an outpouring of grief and appreciation for a character that was silly, goofy, wise and wondrous, and who awoke each morning pleased as punch to still be alive.
Originally from Oklahoma, Hillenburg graduated from California's Humboldt State University in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in marine resources. He later taught marine biology in Orange County, creating characters that would later become the citizens of SpongeBob's underwater home, Bikini Bottom.
His love of drawing and cartoons sent him to the California Institute of Arts in Valencia, earning a master's degree in 1992. He then went to work at the kid's Nickelodeon network, where he directed and wrote for the "Rocko's Modern Life" series.
Hillenburg started doodling fantasies of marine life Bikini Bottom, creating SpongeBob — a strange sponge creature with box-shaped pants and spindly legs — who works at a fast-food restaurant called the Krusty Krab, goes to boating school and lives in a pineapple under the sea.
His good intentions and all-out zealousness usually create havoc in his pretend world, where he hangs out with best friend Patrick, a happy-go-lucky starfish, lives next to the sarcastic octopus named Squidward and works for the miserly Mr. Krabs at the town's most popular restaurant.
"SpongeBob SquarePants" debuted in 1999 and is still going strong. It was not an immediate hit, but slowly built a following and ultimately became the favorite of a generation spawning clothes, toys, full-length films and a Broadway play.
The dialogue was sometimes beyond corny and sometimes more attuned to adult ears. Mostly, it was suited to a child's easily tickled funny bone.
SpongeBob: "Patrick, you're a genius!"
Patrick: "Yeah, I get called that a lot."
SpongeBob: "What? A genius?"
Patrick: "No, Patrick."
SpongeBob, at school: "Can I be excused for the rest of my life?"
Patrick: "What does claustrophobic mean?"
SpongeBob: "It means he's afraid of Santa Claus."
Hillenburg is survived by his wife of 20 years, Karen, son Clay, mother Nancy Hillenburg, brother Brian Hillenburg and nieces Emma and Hazel.
"SpongeBob SquarePants" has won U.S. and British Emmy awards, has been dubbed or subtitled in more than 60 languages, including Urdu, and has created more than 250 episodes to date.