"Gen. Pao was a national leader for the Hmong people," said Cheng Vang, a member of the Southwest Missouri Hmong Association who helped organize the vigil in Wheaton.
"He was a great leader for all of us," said Vang. "His death was a shocking moment for the Hmong people across the United States and around the world, as well."
According to Vang, Hmong-Americans credited Pao for their positive relationship with the United States government. They also believe Pao enabled them to come to America after the Vietnam War.
"He is the father of the Hmong people," said Vang. "A lot of people won't be able to travel to California for the funeral service, so we decided to hold a candlelight vigil here for those who can't travel."
During the vigil, several prominent members of the Southwest Missouri Hmong Association gave addresses, led the group in song and offered prayers. At the close of the ceremony, each family in attendance had the opportunity to leave flowers, incense and candles on a table that displayed photos of the general.
Pao died at a hospital in Clovis, Calif., on Jan. 6. He was 81.
Known as a charismatic Laotian general, Pao commanded a secret army financed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of Hmong people followed him to Thailand after the unsuccessful end of the war in 1975. Later, Pao achieved almost kinglike status as the Hmong people's leader-in-exile in the United States.
Around 180 Hmong families living in southwest Missouri mourned Pao's passing. Representatives of most of the families were in attendance at the vigil.