When I scanned the names of the people who received clemency grants from President Donald Trump on Wednesday morning, one stood out as if it were written in bright red type.
Not Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. Not Lil Wayne, the famous rapper.
This person has no connection to Trump and has never recorded a hip-hop album.
His name is Gary Hendler. He is my uncle.
Uncle Gary, 67, who pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in 1984 but served no prison time, never expected to receive a pardon from Trump.
IMAGE: Gary Hendler
Gary Hendler.Ken Keagy
For good reason: He never actually requested one from the 45th president.
He did, however, send a nearly 90-page pardon application to the Obama Justice Department in 2016. But it seemed to have been all for naught.
Obama granted some form of clemency to 1,927 people by the end of his second term, but Gary was not among them.
“I thought that was the end of it for me,” said Gary, a Pennsylvania radio show host and former addict who has spent more than 30 years helping people recover from addiction.
He has had zero contact with the Trump administration over the past four years. No one even reached out to him to say a pardon was on the way.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using an expletive for emphasis, when asked for his reaction to the news.
He said he checked the list merely out of curiosity after he woke up Wednesday morning.
“It was his last night in the White House. I know he was going to pardon people,” said Gary, who voted for Joe Biden. “Did I think I would be on the list? It was so remote it wasn’t even funny.”
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Gary’s story began in 1973, when he got hooked on quaaludes, a popular recreational drug in the ’70s, while attending Temple University in Philadelphia.
He was not your average college student. He had already gotten a taste of the fast life while working at a Philadelphia-based record distributor in high school.
“I was 19 years old, and I had a Bentley,” he said. “And I was meeting the most famous entertainers in the world: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Barry Manilow.”
His college roommate introduced him to quaaludes, sparking a nearly decadelong battle with addiction.
He and three fellow addicts opened a “stress clinic” in the Philadelphia area and hired a psychiatrist to prescribe quaaludes to anybody who asked. The clinic, Health Centers Inc., opened its doors in January 1981.
Gary’s partners cut ties with him the following month before any of them had made any profits off the business, he said. He roamed the streets for the next year before entering rehab in 1982.
“The only good thing to come of being pushed out of the clinic was that it forced me to confront the life I had been living,” he wrote in his 2016 pardon application.
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“About a year later, in May 1982, I checked myself into the drug treatment program at the Pennsylvania Hospital that saved my life.”
The clinic remained open until 1984, when federal agents raided the business and arrested his former partners, as well as the doctors and the pharmacists who were working for them.
Gary, whose name was still on the corporate papers, was brought in for questioning. He was sober and about to get married.
“I had turned my life around and I saw the clinic involvement as just a bad chapter of my ‘old life,'” he wrote in his pardon application to the Obama White House.
He agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the government. He was sentenced to three years’ supervised probation and fined $300.
“I’m lucky,” he said in the interview Wednesday. “If it wasn’t for the falling out, I would have gone to prison with the rest of them.”
He went on to become the father of two daughters and launch a successful real estate business in the Philadelphia area.
In 1985, he started AA meetings in a synagogue outside Philadelphia that continue to this day. He also hosts a radio show, “Clean and Sober Radio,” which features musicians, athletes and political figures who discuss their battles with substance abuse. And in 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf appointed him to serve on the Pennsylvania Advisory Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
He has “mentored many individuals on their journey to sobriety with his radio broadcasts,” read the description of Gary released by the Trump administration.
“His former probation officer noted that Mr. Hendler had become ‘integral’ in the lives of many members of the community who were dealing with substance abuse issues.”
Gary, who lives with his wife in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, said FBI agents visited him and conducted interviews with his neighbors and family members back in 2016. He still has no idea how his name ended up among those that reached Trump’s desk.
His pardon attorney, Margaret Love, said the language in the description of Gary — that the pardon was supported by former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and the Office of the Pardon Attorney — shows that it went through the normal process of flowing from the Justice Department to the president’s desk.
“It was totally regular,” said Love, who ran the Office of the Pardon Attorney during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. “No special pleading or influence peddling. Out of the 149 grants, only 18 went through the Justice Department process. He’s a lucky camper.”
Gary said he broke down in tears when he saw his name on the pardon list Wednesday morning. He still remembers the precise date he last consumed drugs or alcohol: May 3, 1982.
“It’s the final chapter, the closing of my life in addiction and all the horrible things that came with it,” he said.