by Mary Parrilli
SUGAR GROVE—Have you ever noticed a white cross placed on the side of a local road, noting where someone’s loved one has died? That cross was probably made by Sugar Grove resident Greg Zanis, who has been building and installing them since 1996.
Zanis has installed crosses all over Illinois and the rest of the United States, as well. Most recently, he was invited to Boston, to place three crosses at the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. Zanis and his daughter, Suzy, left two days after the April 15 tragedy and made the 18-hour journey to Boston.
“I’ve done thousands of memorials, but this one was different,” Zanis said.
Zanis said that upon arriving in Boston, his truck was the only civilian vehicle on the road. As soon as he pulled off the interstate, a military man with an AK-47 walked up to his vehicle. They allowed him to place his crosses at the finish line, but under strict supervision.
“I knelt down to write the names on the crosses, and since I’m hard of hearing, I didn’t notice that anyone was around me,” Zanis said. “When I looked up, there was a crowd of about 50 people standing behind me—civilians, policemen and reporters. My daughter was crying hysterically. It was so difficult to see a place like that here in America. I could see the buildings blown out by the explosion. Even the buildings across the street had shrapnel sticking into the sides.”
Zanis said that the crowd was silent while he installed the crosses.
“I saw a military man standing along the edges, and I noticed that he hadn’t shaved. I asked him why, and he informed me that he’d been working for the past 90 hours. 90 hours! And here I am complaining about my 18-hour drive,” Zanis said.
Zanis was only at the scene for about 30 minutes before he headed home, and he declined requests from reporters for interviews. He said he doesn’t consider himself a “big talker,” and prefers to not speak in large groups. He made an exception for Elburn since it’s part of his community.
“I’m not a preacher, I’m just a carpenter, here to offer hope and to do something for the victims and their loved ones,” Zanis said.
More recently, Zanis has done some local work, placing crosses to remember Elburn residents Marilyn Gould, who passed away on April 11, and Caitlyn Phillips, a 13-year-old who passed away on April 26.
Why does Zanis put up crosses? Back in 1996, a woman he knew lost her son. Knowing Zanis as a carpenter, she asked him to build her a cross for her son. Zanis agreed, and the word spread. Zanis even put an ad in the newspaper telling the world that he would build anyone, anywhere a cross if they requested. Many have answered his ad.
“Why are we putting up crosses? Because we want our loved ones to be remembered,” Zanis said.
Zanis said that he is very emotional regarding each victim represented by his crosses. He holds on to them like they were part of his own family. He wants to make it clear that his actions are not for him, but for the victims.
“I’m not trying to grandstand myself—I just want to offer hope,” he said. “This is not about me; I try not to even use the word “I” when talking about the crosses, but it seems it’s a necessity.”
Zanis said he also made a Star of David for the Newtown, Conn., shooting victim who was Jewish.
Zanis has constructed and installed memorials at many scenes, including the Columbine High School shooting in April 1999; United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Stonycreek Township, Penn., as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the Aurora, Colo., shooting in July 2012; and the Newtown shooting in December 2012.
“I’m the only person who puts up rows of crosses to really show what happened there, and the many lives that are gone,” Zanis said.
Typically, a family member of a victim will meet Zanis at the scene, and Zanis will allow the family member to install the cross. Zanis usually writes the names of victims on the crosses when he arrives at the scene—a ritual that he believes allows full dedication and remembrance of the victim. And Zanis said he always prays with the family member.
“I’ve installed so many crosses and gotten to know so many families. I’ll tell ya, I never get used to it,” he said.