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Smith: The boy and the cross on the hill

  • Arvo Kannisto, the creator of the iconic cross above the St. Francis Acres neighborhood in Santa Rosa, shown in 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Cameron Whiteside is a 15-year-old with his heart in the right place, and a summertime mission.

Nearly a sophomore at east Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High, Cameron collects signatures on a petition. It urges the owner of hillside property near the school to allow him and some helpers to hike up and maintain the great, white cross that’s visible for miles.

“The reason I want to save it is that it was created by a World War II veteran,” Cameron said.

The teen has lived all his life in Rincon Valley, so he’s always been aware of the prone cross carved into a steep slope up above the St. Francis Acres/Skyhawk neighborhoods.

Curiosity spurred him to Google it. He learned that the cross was for decades a labor of love by Arvo Kannisto, a combat vet, Christian and retired police lieutenant who lives below the slope.

For years, Arvo gazed up at the timbered hillside and imagined, in one of the grassy clearings, a great cross. He told me during an interview in 2001 that his inspiration grew in part from flying once into Rio de Janiero and stirring at the sight of the towering, almost 100-foot-tall figure of Christ the Redeemer .

TO THIS CHRISTIAN VET, a cross honors Jesus and the fallen soldiers who lie beneath that symbol in cemeteries.

In 1981, when he was 63, Arvo contacted the property owner and asked permission to hike up to the clearing and gather boulders into the shape of a cross. The owner said OK.

What Arvo did then was Herculean. The wiry veteran and ex-cop lugged boulders into the shape of a “t”. He decided it wasn’t big enough so he enlarged it to its present dimensions: 127 feet tall, 67 feet wide.

For 31 years, Arvo and some helpers maintained it by hiking up and spraying the weeds with Roundup, repainting the boulders and replacing those that kids rolled down the hill.

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