'A man of faith': Aurora's 'Cross Man' dies from cancer
He had lost his characteristic energy to cancer, but Greg Zanis still was dedicated to his legacy the last time he met with an Aurora historian.
Though frail, the retired carpenter visited with Aurora Historical Society Executive Director John Jaros last Wednesday to talk about his final work, "The Cross Man," a book about the person behind the white crosses that defined his life.
"He was a man of great faith, but also great energy, and I think he needed something to do, and he really found something that fit for him to not only to use his carpentry craft, but his faith and his empathy," Jaros said. "And he just went everywhere."
Zanis, the carpenter who single-handedly built thousands of crosses for shooting victims across the country, died Monday morning. He was 69.
Zanis lived long enough to see hundreds of people drive by his home in a long procession Friday, a "living visitation" held by his family to give Zanis some peace and comfort in his final days.
"He was a man of action who simply wanted to honor the lives of others," Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin said in a statement. "In return, his life was one of honor and one that was celebrated throughout our nation and world. Heeding to the scripture 'pick up your cross and follow me,' Mr. Greg Zanis did just that. He picked up the crosses he made and followed his mission in the noblest of ways."
Zanis began making crosses in 1996 to help him grieve the murder of his father-in-law, Ralph "Bud" Stadler. Zanis built his first one in honor of Nico Contreras, a 6-year-old Aurora boy killed that year, at the request of the boy's mother.
His crosses would become a symbol of the national ritual after every mass shooting.
"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 told the Daily Herald last year.
In 1999, Zanis placed crosses near Columbine High School, returning to Colorado 13 years later for another display in memory of the victims of a movie theater shooting.
Zanis would visit grief-stricken communities to put up crosses, Stars of David, crescent moons or generic wreaths in Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas; Parkland, Florida; and then his own hometown.
"Greg was a man of faith, and he encountered tragedy within his own family and his own life," Jaros said. "And I think that's one of the reasons he was able to understand and empathize and bond with some of the other families of the victims."
Of the nearly 3,000 crosses Zanis built last year before retiring, one set bears the names of the five employees killed in a shooting at the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora: Clayton Parks, Trevor Wehner, Josh Pinkard, Russell Beyer and Vicente Juarez.
Jaros has preserved those crosses, as part of the historical society's collection. Zanis' family also is offering the book through the historical society.
Another nonprofit group, Lutheran Church Charities, has taken over his cross-building mission.