Twenty years ago, 15 wooden crosses appeared on a hill overlooking Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado. It was April 28, 1999, eight days after a pair of students had shot and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher before killing themselves. At first, the crosses seemed to be part miracle, part mystery. Before long, their creator stepped forward: Greg Zanis, a carpenter from Sugar Grove, Illinois, who had driven them nearly 1,000 miles to Colorado.
Since Columbine, Zanis has built and delivered more than 26,000 crosses—Stars of David and crescent moons, too—to communities across America grieving in the wake of violence, natural disasters, and other catastrophes. He brought them to Paradise, California, after wildfires wiped out most of the town; Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were killed in a synagogue; Sandy Hook, Connecticut, when 26 children and staff were gunned down in their school; and Las Vegas, where 58 people died while enjoying a music festival.
One place Zanis, 68, never expected to plant his crosses was in his own backyard. On February 15, 2019, he was in his workshop when he heard sirens scream past his window. He looked out to see dozens of first responders racing down the street. Later that day, he learned that a disgruntled ex-employee had walked into the Henry Pratt manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois—just 15 minutes from where Zanis lives—and killed five former coworkers. Zanis found himself with the same sickening reaction he’d witnessed in so many towns around the country: How could it happen?
“This is home,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It was not supposed to happen here.”
And yet it did. Soon, his phone began to ring: When would he set up his crosses? Zanis worked through the night, building five monuments to the deceased. Each was four feet tall, weighed about 30 pounds, and featured the victim’s name and photo and a big red heart. “My simple message is just that heart on the cross,” he told CNN. “Love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge them. Life isn’t that complicated. Hate and revenge is.”
Zanis loaded the crosses carefully into the back of his white pickup and drove to the plant. He already knew where he’d place them: on the sidewalk out front, next to a chain-link fence. As he always does, he arrived quietly and left without a word. His work was done. Read up on more stories about the kindness of strangers that will have you tearing up.
Zanis understands more than most how the families feel. He began building crosses to honor his father-in-law, who was murdered in 1996. Tragedy struck him again in 2018, when he buried his 37-year-old daughter, who died of a drug overdose. A few weeks after her death, he was in Parkland, Florida, with the 17 crosses and stars he’d made for the victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“When I went to [Parkland], I was a mess,” he told the Tribune. “But I can’t allow myself to get consumed in my own grief. I’m offering these families hope. It helps me, and it helps them. I know that for a fact because when I leave there, they are smiling.”
Despite having seen and experienced so much grief, Zanis insists he has no agenda. He isn’t advocating for one thing or another. “I’m not a gun issue guy. I’m not a church guy,” he told the New York Times. “There’s no interest here other than helping people remember.”