Born in Bricelyn, Minnesota, Hestenes earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1932 under Gilbert Bliss. His dissertation was titled "Sufficient Conditions for the General Problem of Mayer with Variable End-Points." After teaching as an associate professor at Chicago, in 1947 he moved to a professorship at UCLA. He continued there until his retirement in 1973, and during that time he served as department chair from 1950-58. While a professor, Hestenes supervised the thesis research of 34 students, among them Glen Culler, Richard Tapia and Jesse Wilkins, Jr..