Greg Zanis, Illinois man who built more than 27K crosses for gun violence victims, retires

AURORA, Ill. -- Greg Zanis, the Aurora, Illinois man who has built more than 27,000 white crosses to commemorate victims of gun violence in America, says he has ended his mission.

The 69-year-old carpenter began making those crosses in 1996, the same year his father-in-law was shot and killed. After working through the slew of emotions he was sure he wanted to help other victims of violence, but didn't know how.

Then he was contacted by the mother of Nico Contreras, a 6-year-old who had been shot and killed in Aurora. She asked him to build a cross in Nico's honor. After meeting with her, he realized the power that symbol held and decided that would become his mission.

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In his workshop in Aurora, he created kindness.

"I did everything like it was a calling," he said. "I did it on my own. I did it with zeal and with love."

Then, in 1999, he received a call from the family of one of the victims of the Columbine school shooting. He traveled to Colorado to deliver their crosses and began traveling more and more to the scenes of mass shootings.

He did not just create crosses; he built Stars of David and other symbols to honor the victims of senseless violence. He traveled to Newtown, Conn., in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, to Las Vegas after the massacre at the Harvest Music Festival, and to Orlando to commemorate the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, even though he got pushback from his church.

"I cry my head off every time I leave these cities," said Zanis. "I can't... I find it easy to get there, but hard to get home."

In Chicago, the crosses have been a call to action. On New Year's Eve 2016, at the end of an especially violent year, Zanis's crosses formed a sea of grief on the Magnificent Mile.

"Every single time it's a memory that lodges in my mind that I can't erase," he said.

This past year was perhaps his busiest. Zanis was in El Paso following the mass shooting at a Walmart. When his hometown of Aurora was rocked by a deadly workplace shooting at the Henry Pratt Company, he said it was a signal that it was time to stop.

"I don't know how to cope with it anymore. And it's multiplied and multiplied and multiplied, until it happened in my town," said Zanis.

In all, he has built more than 27,000 crosses.

Zanis said he would like to continue making a difference by training others to continue his work. He said he's been talking with Lutheran Charities of Northbrook about how to make that happen.

Then he plans to work on a 1920s Cadillac he purchased in the 1970s and has sat in his garage untouched ever since.
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