In the pantheon of iconic cartoon characters, there’s of course Mickey, Bugs, Homer, and a certain yellow sponge who has captured the hearts of audiences across the globes for over two decades. So, who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
If your immediate response was an enthusiastic chanting of “Spongebob Squarepants,” you aren’t alone. The television show Spongebob Squarepants premiered on Nickelodeon in 1999 and has run ever since. It has cemented itself as not only a titan in pop culture, but one of the most successful shows to ever grace the small screen. And the entire world of Bikini Bottom came from the mind of animator Stephen Hillenburg.
Hillenburg attended Savanna High School in Anaheim in Orange County, the same school his mother, Nancy, worked at. While at Savanna, Hillenburg became interested in scuba diving and marine biology, thanks in part to nearby diving culture. When he wasn’t at school, Hillenburg was reportedly swimming, diving, surfing, or doing anything that meant he could be in the ocean. Later in life, he would admit to being a self-diagnosed “ocean freak.” After graduating Savanna in 1979, Hillenburg would continue to pursue his passion for marine biology, attending Humboldt State University in Arcata and earning a bachelor’s degree in 1984 in marine resource planning.
But there was always another passion in Hillenburg’s heart, and that was art. As a child, he loved to draw, and his love only grew as he got older. While working at various marina jobs around the Golden Coast, Hillenburg would frequently make comics and illustrations to help teach kids about marine life. While working at the Dana Point Ocean Institute in the 1980s, Hillenburg created a comic book called The Intertidal Zone, an off-beat and educational hand-out for young visitors that featured a character named Bob the Sponge.
Hillenburg would soon receive a master’s degree in experimental animation from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. His unique artistic voice in shorts like The Green Beret (1991) and Wormholes (1992) helped him land a job on Joe Murray’s revolutionary series Rocko’s Modern Life (1993 - 1996). Soon after, Hillenburg pitched his own idea to the network based on his aforementioned comic book.
After the release of The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (2004), Hillenburg stepped away from the show to focus on his family and personal projects, though he remained a producer and creative contributor for the show. In 2017, Hillenburg revealed that he had been diagnosed with ALS, and the following year he passed away at the age of 57. Fans around the world were surprised and shaken by his death.
In 2020, YouTube personality Griffin Hansen contacted the Anaheim Historical Society about commemorating Hillenburg’s legacy in his hometown. Hansen partnered with Karen Hillenburg, Stephen’s widow to design the memorial. Because Savanna was such an important piece of Hillenburg’s artistic journey, the school was chosen as the project’s intended location. The final plan was simple: a yellow, Spongebob-colored bench and a beautiful bronze plaque written in by Hansen and John Oseid, a writer and close friend. Karen Hillenburg was adamant a modest, yet goofy-looking bench was the perfect way to capture his gentle, yet humorous essence.
On November 18, 2021, Savanna High School held a dedication ceremony for the memorial. In addition to Hansen and the Hillenburg family, the entire voice cast of Spongebob Squarepants was in attendance.
Savanna’s Stephen Hillenburg Memorial not only perfectly captures the creativity and humbleness of one of animation’s brightest stars, but serves as a reminder to young men and women—at Savanna and beyond—to follow your passions, no matter how wild they may seem, and never be afraid to use humor and imagination to create something that can inspire others. In so many ways, Hillenburg’s legacy may best be remembered as the man who told an entire generation of mankind it’s okay to be a goofy goober. ROCK!
Know Before You Go
The Stephen Hillenburg Memorial is located in the Quigley's Quad area of Savanna High School.