'Miles of hearts': Aurora comforts 'Cross Man' in his final days
They kept coming and coming.
People who knew Greg Zanis only as the "Cross Man." People who never met the Aurora carpenter but recognized him by his life's work: the white crosses he made for tens of thousands of victims of shootings and other tragedies.
Those strangers drove by his Aurora home Friday in equally staggering numbers, a procession so long police had to direct traffic around his neighborhood.
His daughter called it a "living visitation" to give her father, dying from cancer, some peace and comfort in his final days.
It's what he tried to do for families deprived of goodbyes.
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.
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.
"He just cared that you were human, and you lost your life," said Dawn Valenti, a close friend who visited his home Friday.
The crosses always looked the same. White, wooden, 3 feet tall. Red heart in the center.
"Miles of hearts for you," read one of the homemade signs greeting Zanis as he watched the convoy from a wheelchair on his front porch.
Of the nearly 3,000 crosses he built last year alone, one set commemorates the five employees killed in a 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."
The emotional and financial toll of traveling across the country to personally put up crosses, Stars of David, crescent moons or generic wreaths in the wake of national tragedies led Zanis to retire last December.
After 23 years, he turned over the cross-building effort 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.
LCC is now carrying on his legacy as the Hearts of Mercy & Compassion, Crosses for Losses ministry. LCC President and CEO Tim Hetzner met with Zanis, who was tired, but "touched" by the procession of vehicles along a path of crosses.
"It was fitting for a man who has done so much," Hetzner said.
Undeterred by the pandemic, hundreds of people drove by to support Zanis. They waved and honked their horns. Some painted crosses on posters, others decorated cars with balloons.
With his family, Zanis watched the slow-moving line of cars, beneath another cross on his front door.