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Despite weariness, Greg Zanis keeps working at his mission

Items crosses decorate makeshift memorial April 20 2013 BoylstStreet near scene BostMarathexplosions.  |  Getty Images

Items and crosses decorate a makeshift memorial April 20, 2013 on Boylston Street, near the scene of Boston Marathon explosions. | Getty Images

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Updated: May 25, 2013 6:33AM

Yes, Greg Zanis went to Boston. Quick trip. There and back.

Yes, he planted three crosses at the marathon finish line. He saw the blood. Of adults. Of children. And yes, it horrified him, more so this time as the pools of red reminded him off finding his murdered father-in-law, Ralph Stadler, at the bottom of his office stairs in Aurora 17 years ago.

That’s when this mission of his — making, then planting crosses at the sites of tragic death — began. At first, murders and traffic accidents kept him busy in the Fox Valley. Then he branched out, transporting his homemade crosses to the sites of other horrors, including Chicago’s E2 nightclub stampede and the Lincoln Park porch collapse.

Zanis became national news back in 1999 when he brought 15 homemade crosses to Columbine, including two for the killers who took their own lives. Since then his notoriety as Cross Man, like the number of markers he’s made, has grown.

So much so that he now gets police escorts when he arrives at these massacre sites, with those large white crosses riding in the bed of his pickup truck.

So much so that dozens of cameras from news outlets all over the country are stuck in his face; and he’s hounded by aggressive reporters hungry for, at the very least, a quote or two before they have to file that day’s update.

“It gets ridiculous,” he tells me. “I don’t have to talk to all those people. The crosses speak for themselves.”

Greg Zanis is tired. Physically and emotionally. He’s made three long trips across this great land of ours since July of last year. “We had so many,” he says of the mass killings that also took him to Aurora, Colo., last July; and Newtown, Conn., in December.

Yet, this latest, he adds, was different.

“It was a horrific scene,” he says, describing the carnage that defaced Boston last week. “It was like a war zone.”

The three crosses he placed at the memorial site were also different. They featured large red wooden hearts at the center. You’ve probably seen them, more than once, as pictures of his crosses were shown on news stations across the world, as well as splashed across front pages and websites too numerous to count.

Yet the Aurora man — because of the economy, the contractor recently lost his Prestbury home in Sugar Grove and now lives on Church Street — has remained remarkably low key as of late. He tells me this is the only extensive interview he granted for this Boston trip. Zanis has been criticized in the past for the publicity he generates, yet he insists he doesn’t take the crosses anywhere unless “someone with a personal connection calls and asks.”

This time, he says, it was a marathon runner whose husband lost a leg in the explosion.

“We need you here,” Zanis says the woman told him.

And so he came. Two thousand miles, with his daughter as his companion. In and out, taking advantage of his celebrity to get his crosses front and center, while ignoring cameras and pushing reporter questions aside.

And when he got home, his voice mail was full.

His story is an intriguing one. He understands that as much as anyone. Zanis says he’s made more than 14,000 crosses since he began this ministry in the late ‘90s. The number is staggering. But he knows many more will be made. Perhaps that is why he grows weary.

“I cry so easily … too easily,” he admits.

Yet he will continue to leave his mark in this world.

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