When John Gargano worked as a waiter at Union Square Cafe in his early 30s, he served families throwing graduation parties for students at New York University. He figured he would never be one of them.
Instead, Mr. Gargano carved out a side hustle as a drug dealer. It turned into a full-time racket that landed him in prison with a 30-year sentence.
On Thursday, after a remarkable reversal in circumstances, Mr. Gargano, 52, graduated from the university’s School of Professional Studies and served as a keynote speaker at the virtual ceremony. Next month, he will start a new job as general manager of Craft, the flagship restaurant of Crafted Hospitality owned by the chef and television personality Tom Colicchio.
But Mr. Gargano’s comeback story — from prison to early freedom through clemency, from community college to N.Y.U., from part-time server to restaurant manager — was almost derailed by the pandemic.
In April 2020, like so many other people, he lost his restaurant job. He fell into a morass of red tape as he applied for unemployment benefits. He contemplated dropping out of N.Y.U. and giving up on his blossoming career to load trucks at Fresh Direct for $15 an hour.
“Overcoming these extreme experiences provided me with the strength to not allow my past the ability to define what I can do, or who I can become,” he told his fellow students at the ceremony.
Mr. Gargano, too, is on his way up. “He really seems fitting for now,” said Susan Greenbaum, dean of the School of Professional Studies.
Inside his tidy, sparsely furnished studio apartment in the Bronx on Thursday morning, Mr. Gargano donned a tie and sat at a desk adjacent to his bed. A golden tassel signifying high academic performance lay on a table behind him. He talked with his mother and sister through FaceTime and watched the ceremony.
“I’ll probably watch this video 100 times,” he said.
The speech was heavily rehearsed and prerecorded. While he streamed the proceedings, Mr. Gargano sometimes seemed more focused on fielding congratulatory messages than on the ceremony itself. But when he was asked what it meant to him that he was graduating, he fought off tears.
From 1996 to 2001, Mr. Gargano rose through the ranks as a waiter at expensive restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia. He said “a big blur of drugs” took over his life. To pay for his habit, he began dealing meth, ecstasy and other narcotics.
In 2004, he was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to distribute drugs and sentenced to the 30-year term — 20 years inside, and 10 years on supervised release — the result of severe mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.
In 2014 the Justice Department announced an initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent felons sentenced under guidelines deemed excessively strict. Mr. Gargano wrote his own clemency petition, which was granted in 2016.
He received a letter signed by President Barack Obama: “I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life.”
The letter served as motivation. “When you have someone of such high authority put their belief in you, you don’t let them down,” Mr. Gargano said. “It’s carried me through every difficult time I’ve had since I got out.”
After he was released from prison, he got a job as a part-time bartender at Riverpark, a restaurant in Kips Bay, Manhattan, also owned by Mr. Colicchio, and made a quick ascent to management and a lasting impression on customers.
Whenever Al Palladino, 82, a customer who suffered from back pain, risked hurting himself, Mr. Gargano would spot the trouble “from across the room” and swoop in to help, said Mr. Palladino’s wife, Chris. Mr. Gargano would make sure the Palladinos secured their favorite corner seats at the bar.
His service was the main reason that the couple became regulars at Riverpark, said Ms. Palladino, who is 77.
“You don’t go someplace every single week because they make a good drink,” she said. “You go because of the way you’re treated, because you have your friends there.”
While working 80 hours a week at the restaurant, Mr. Gargano was also earning a 4.0 G.P.A. at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. After graduating with an associate degree in 2019, he won a scholarship to help him pursue a bachelor’s degree in leadership and management at N.Y.U.
The big payoff seemed to arrive on March 4, 2020: a job making $95,000 a year as director of service at the TriBeCa taverna Locanda Verde.
He drew the salary for two weeks before the pandemic shut down the city.
Despite the scholarship support, Mr. Gargano still owed tens of thousands of dollars in tuition. He spent part of his salary on supporting his mother and sister, including by making regular payments on a car the two of them shared.
Like many New Yorkers and people across the country, Mr. Gargano threw himself into applying for unemployment benefits as he struggled to reach officials and ran up against technicalities suggesting he might be ineligible. He reached out to The New York Times in desperation.
“You’re expecting $1,104 a week, and now you realize that you’re not going to get nothing,” he said in an interview in April last year.
It took 10 weeks, but Mr. Gargano finally got approved for benefits. Thanks to a succession of federal relief bills, he also received $8,700 routed through N.Y.U.
Without the relief money, “I never would have graduated,” Mr. Gargano said. With it, he focused on college. He spent last summer taking four classes, even though some of his financial aid package could only be used during the fall and spring semesters.
“It put me in position where I could get back to the work force six months earlier,” he said.
Crafted Hospitality offered him a contract worth over $100,000 a year.
Greg Tomicich, Crafted’s director of restaurants, said Mr. Gargano made a powerful impression on his son, Benjamin, who was a busboy at Riverpark.
Mr. Gargano taught his son the right values, said Mr. Tomicich. “That’s hard work and setting yourself up to be successful — not waiting for someone to show you something, but to learn it on your own.”