“He would have said, ‘Pack a lunch. We’re off to boating!’ ” said Mee, seated at her St. Paul dining room table sifting through family photographs.
Mee, nine months pregnant with her fifth child, is bravely pushing forward, determined to honor the memory of her husband, Vone. The 45-year-old family man was shot and killed June 9 in an early morning struggle with an angry bar patron at Malina’s Sports Bar in St. Paul. He and Mee have owned the Frogtown bar since 2002.
That patron, Yia Her, 26, of Oakdale, and his brother-in-law, Cheng Vang, 22, of Minneapolis, have been charged with second-degree murder in Moua’s death, and two counts of attempted second-degree murder. A trial is set for the fall.
Moua, born in Laos, was deeply proud of owning a business. But he is being remembered, and praised, for decades of work building trust and strengthening Hmong families as a licensed clinical social worker.
“How could his life be taken so quickly?” asks Mee, also a social worker, as she reaches for a tissue. She was at the bar to pick up her husband early that morning and witnessed the shooting.
Her told police he paid $20 to play pool, but was asked to leave because the bar was closing.
After attending a court hearing in mid-July, Mee was struck by an irony she perhaps can share with Her and Vang someday. “You,” she would tell them, “are the families he would have stretched his arms out to help.”
Mary Buchta, a retired social worker at Northpoint Health and Wellness Center, referred clients to Moua for 10 years. “I was in great need of someone who could provide culturally appropriate mental health care in the Hmong community, and I found Vone,” Buchta said. “He so educated me. He was a humanitarian, a gentle soul.
“My gut hurts.”
Vone moved to the United States in 1978 and graduated from St. Paul’s Highland Park High School in 1986. He met Mee in 1992 at a Hmong New Year celebration.
“He was very polite and traditional,” she said. “He never approached me. He spoke to my parents instead.”
They kept in touch as he completed his studies. After earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he was hired by the St. Paul Public Schools.
The two reconnected and Vone encouraged Mee to also pursue social work. “He said, ‘You have the personality, the empathy, to work with people. He really inspired me.”
They married in 1995. After completing her master’s degree, Mee began working with adults with mental illness.
In 2000, they bought a building on N. Dale Street in St. Paul, envisioning a grocery store below, with their private practice above. Instead, they opened a bar in the space in 2002 and juggled children with work running a group home through Ramsey County.
In 2003, Vone was named an Okura Mental Health Foundation Fellow to Washington, D.C. “He came back very energetic,” Mee said of the prestigious award granted to leaders in the Asian-American community. “He wanted to move the clinic forward.”
They opened their private practice above the bar in 2004, specializing in individual and couples therapy. He worked with the Hmong Mental Health Task Force but did outreach, too, in the African-American and Hispanic communities.
He began to talk on the radio about the signs and symptoms of mental illness, a topic still stigmatized in these communities. “Our clinics, through word-of-mouth, just grew,” Mee said.
Sometimes, “therapy sessions” would begin in the bar, Mee said. She’d joke with patrons drawn to kind and patient Vone to talk about their struggles, “You should take that upstairs.”
“He did a lot of unpaid outreach,” Mee said. “It was part of his love for the community.”
They always bounced ideas off each other and often worked as a team. Mee remembers one difficult home visit, involving a daughter threatening suicide due to difficulties with her mother. Mee worked with the girl, ultimately getting the knife away from her. Vone engaged with the mother, eventually getting her to apologize to her daughter.
“It had a happy ending,” Mee said, “but he’s seen a lot.”
Vone often worked until 7 p.m., making phone calls or stops at hospitals. His parents were living with them during those hectic years, taking care of the children. In 2008, his father died suddenly of heart failure. A devastated Vone referred his clients out and became a stay-at-home dad.
“Let’s spend time with the kids,” he told Mee. “They’re growing up.”
In 2010, after their fourth child was born, Vone renovated the bar, adding booths and a Vietnamese chef. He stayed at home during the day, enjoyed family dinners every night, then headed to the bar to work from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
In the summers, the family took road trips, to Florida and Washington, D.C., New York and Mount Rushmore. The kids always had to do their homework first. “Most of our trips were designed in an educational way,” Mee said.
Vone loved boating and hunting, ice-fishing and woodworking. “Coasters, benches, he would build it,” she said. This summer they were planning to landscape their yard and build a playhouse for the boys. Instead, their 3-year-old cries, “Daddy, daddy.” Their other son is 8. The girls are 12 and 14.
The family held a funeral July 6 through 8, with friends and colleagues attending from near and far. Mee is mulling ways to honor her husband’s memory by building something lasting, such as a playground.
“He always felt better when other people felt better,” she said. “How could this have happened to my husband?”