He's made thousands of crosses for shooting victims. Now, Aurora's 'Cross Guy' is retiring

  • Greg Zanis, of Aurora, stands in front of a display of more than 750 crosses he built to represent each homicide death in 2016 in Chicago. Zanis is retiring from his cross-building mission after 23 years.

    Greg Zanis, of Aurora, stands in front of a display of more than 750 crosses he built to represent each homicide death in 2016 in Chicago. Zanis is retiring from his cross-building mission after 23 years. Daily Herald file photo

  • Greg Zanis replaces crosses with new ones with victims names on them outside the site of an Aurora workplace shooting that killed five employees and wounded five police officers.

      Greg Zanis replaces crosses with new ones with victims names on them outside the site of an Aurora workplace shooting that killed five employees and wounded five police officers. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, February 2019

  • Greg Zanis meets with LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs teams during a September deployment to Texas in the wake of shootings in the cities of Odessa and Midland. LCC is taking over Zanis' Crosses for Losses ministry.

    Greg Zanis meets with LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs teams during a September deployment to Texas in the wake of shootings in the cities of Odessa and Midland. LCC is taking over Zanis' Crosses for Losses ministry. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

  • Greg Zanis is joined by Richard Martin, LCC Director of K-9 Ministries, at a memorial for the two victims in a school shooting in Santa Clarita, California.

    Greg Zanis is joined by Richard Martin, LCC Director of K-9 Ministries, at a memorial for the two victims in a school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. Courtesy of Lutheran Church Charities

  • Greg Zanis, of Aurora, carries crosses for a memorial for the victims of the theater shooting on Sunday, July 22, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado. Twelve were killed and 58 were wounded when suspected gunman James Holmes opened fire on a crowd during a late night screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

    Greg Zanis, of Aurora, carries crosses for a memorial for the victims of the theater shooting on Sunday, July 22, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado. Twelve were killed and 58 were wounded when suspected gunman James Holmes opened fire on a crowd during a late night screening of "The Dark Knight Rises." Associated Press

  • Greg Zanis prepares crosses to place at a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting at a shopping complex Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.

    Greg Zanis prepares crosses to place at a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting at a shopping complex Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. Associated Press

  • Greg Zanis, from Aurora, Ill., places 12 crosses, one for each victim, across the street from the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo. on Sunday, July 22, 2012. Twelve people were killed and dozens injured in a shooting attack early Friday at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. in 1999, Zanis placed 15 crosses near Columbine High School to commemorate the victims.

    Greg Zanis, from Aurora, Ill., places 12 crosses, one for each victim, across the street from the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo. on Sunday, July 22, 2012. Twelve people were killed and dozens injured in a shooting attack early Friday at the packed theater during a showing of the Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Police have identified the suspected shooter as James Holmes, 24. in 1999, Zanis placed 15 crosses near Columbine High School to commemorate the victims. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 12/27/2019 9:15 AM

There was something different about these last two crosses.

The pair looked just the like the thousands of other crosses made by Aurora carpenter Greg Zanis. White, wooden, 3 feet tall. Red heart in the center.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Another school shooting summoned Zanis to California last month to bring crosses to a makeshift memorial for two teenagers killed by a fellow student at a high school in suburban Los Angeles.

As usual, Zanis wrote the names of the victims -- Dominic Blackwell, 14, and Gracie Anne Muehlberger, 15 -- in black marker across the crosses.

But instead of heading to the next memorial in what has become an exhausting, reflexive ritual, Zanis, 69, decided to step away from his cross-building mission and hand over the role to another ministry for victims of mass shootings and natural disasters.

"I'm not a counselor. It's just way more than I can handle," Zanis said Thursday.

The numbers behind his Crosses for Losses nonprofit are staggering: Zanis estimates he's built 27,521 crosses over nearly a quarter century.

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He's kept track of all the memorials, filling 79 notebooks with names and ages of victims.

He's driven hundreds of thousands of miles crisscrossing the country to personally put up the crosses, Stars of David, crescent moons or generic wreaths in the wake of tragedies he lists by place.

Known as the "Cross Guy," Zanis tried to deliver the crosses and leave, but he doesn't keep an emotional distance. He cries with mourners and embraces families.

"People are asking me for reason or rhyme, and I say, 'Well look, I'm a carpenter, and I'm not just bringing in a piece of wood,'" he said.

Zanis began making crosses in 1996 to help him grieve the murder of his father-in-law. He built his first one in honor of Nico Contreras, a 6-year-old killed in Aurora that year, at the request of the boy's mother.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I started out not really expecting anything, and slowly I realized this is a calling, just a stranger showing an act of kindness from another state," Zanis said.

His crosses would become a familiar sight at vigils for victims of mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, San Bernardino, California, Orlando, Florida, Las Vegas, Parkland, Florida, and then his own hometown.

Of the nearly 3,000 crosses he built this year alone, one set commemorates the five employees killed in the February shooting at the Henry Pratt company in Aurora: Clayton Parks, Trevor Wehner, Josh Pinkard, Russell Beyer and Vicente Juarez.

"Last night I had people stopping at my house all night. I didn't get to sleep," Zanis said at the time. "I feel like I am carrying the weight of the whole city on my shoulders. I am expected to attend all the vigils and all the funerals. And of course I will be there."

But it's taken an emotional and financial toll on Zanis and his family. So he's retiring and turning over the ministry to Lutheran Church Charities, a Northbrook-based group that has dispatched comfort dogs and volunteer handlers to the same devastated communities where Zanis has shown up with crosses.

"It's just a natural fit," he said. "I just feel like this is what Jesus wants, not for me to just up and quit."

LCC is a Christian-based network of churches, but the group doesn't "prosthelytize, the same as Greg," President and CEO Tim Hetzner said. "We're there to serve people and to be there with people when they go through a crisis."

Handlers with the group's K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry have helped Zanis assemble, pray over and place the crosses after mass shootings. Richard Martin, the K-9 Ministries director, joined Zanis at his last cross display at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California in November.

"He's got his heart and soul in that ministry that he's been doing, and I want to honor that, and at the same time our missions are very similar: to help people who are suffering, people who have experienced loss," Hetzner said.

Zanis has already dropped off 100 crosses at a Lutheran church in Las Vegas in preparation for the transition. Starting in January, he plans to visit other churches in the network -- there are 130 -- to train anyone who wants to build crosses. He wants those who carry the torch to learn the craftsmanship so "they get vested in this."

"I'm just planning to transfer the ministry over where people put their hands on it and their heart into just like I'm doing," he said.

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